Saturday, 14 January 2017

Lo-fi Life

Compared with Beirut (where I was this time last week) the traffic in London seems eerily quiet. Whereas Lebanese drivers regard the sounding of horns to be as essential to their progress as the use of indicators is irrelevant, here the opposite applies: horns are rarely sounded and, when they are, it is usually in anger at the tardiness of others to use their indicators. One could become annoyed by the constant honking of Beiruti drivers but I chose not to after I had a Damascene moment in a café, where the oddly eclectic soundtrack included Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman and, just at the moment when the harmonica solo came in, a passing car sounded its horn loudly but precisely on cue and perfectly in pitch with Bob’s opening note. From then on I was all ears, listening for tonal coincidences and accidental harmonies.
Nevertheless, I adjusted straight away to being back in the UK (unlike my PC which, for the first 24 hours, insisted on trying to connect to a wi-fi router in a Cypriot airport) and re-engaged immediately with the preoccupations of the Western world. Some of them, admittedly, do seem ludicrous on re-acquaintance: the news, for example, that geeks have implanted sensors in a hairbrush so that data transmitted to your smartphone will alert you to the possibility that you might be brushing your hair “incorrectly”. Given that humans are biologically equipped with sensors that do the same job, are they now supposed to be redundant in the face of electronic substitutes? That would be gizmology for the sake of it, surely? I was still thinking of this on a visit to the recently re-located Design Museum in Kensington where I gazed nostalgically – and covetously – at a stylishly designed music system of the late 1960s. It might now be considered ludicrously lo-tech but it was – and is – gloriously hi-fi nonetheless.
And I was further convinced that older technology still has its uses when, the next day, my old friend took me up for a spin in his newly-acquired helicopter. Nothing fancy: in fact he describes it, in simple terms, as a vintage-design tractor engine with two seats bolted on top, a perspex canopy enclosing them and a drive-chain hitched to a couple of rotors. Perceived that way it could be a scary proposition to venture into the skies, but it works – and it’s a lot more fun than the series of rides I have recently experienced in Boeings and Airbuses. And when we landed we had a slap-up ‘all-day-breakfast’ at Denham Airfield cafe, personally prepared by the proprietor, Dave, former boxer and leading member of a Hawkwind tribute band, who single-handedly provides an egalitarian service for crew and passengers alike. England at its traditional best.
It was quite cold up in the air though, and I was glad I had put on the winter-weight shirt I had bought a few days previously, though the choosing of it was not straightforward. I had previously read this mysterious line, the ring always believes that the finger lives for it, and was unsure what it really meant. Now I know. Most shirts appear to think the same way: they want your body to fit their conception of what a shirt should be. Now I don’t consider myself to be an unusual shape or size, but it is apparent that the garment industry has its own standards, so finding a good fit is not easy. Perhaps, as a friend of mine once remarked, the older you get the more you have to spend on tailoring.
Old as I am, however, I do expect to experience the next really useful tech advance: driverless cars. I have concluded that, since their horns will never be sounded in anger, they might be programmed to play the first few notes of Just Like a Woman, which I would find very uplifting.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

That Foreign Feeling

By the second day of our stay in Cyprus I had abandoned my cappuccino habit in favour of Greek/Turkish/Cypriot-style coffee – not because it’s a superior brew but because it enhances the feeling of being somewhere foreign. And two weeks later, in Beirut, I was delighted to find that not only do they make coffee the same way but also add a pinch of cardamom, the taste of which intensifies the exoticism still further.
It was only a 25 minute flight from Larnaca and its lavish, EU-funded airport but Beirut really seemed a world away. The snarling complexity of the place is daunting and, with only five days to take it in, one felt the pressure to wring the most out of the visit, starting with the basics – finding places to eat ‘authentic’ Lebanese food. Sniffing them out can be a lengthy and random process but, with the help of a guide book and sensible shoes, it can be narrowed down considerably. The general principle of sticking to low-rent areas also helps. The French, when they were in charge, did their best to civilize the locals by introducing their own cuisine – especially in the posher parts of town: the new colonists – big money interests – added a layer of blandly international hotel chains with their sanitised, themed restaurants; and McDonald’s, Burger-King et al are all there too, jostling for market share.
But Beirut, being a big city with a diverse cultural base and vast disparity in wealth-distribution, allows plenty of scope for all styles of eatery to thrive. It’s a place where mosques stand next door to basilicas, vying with each other in their splendour and magnificence; where sky-scrapers sprout amongst old Ottoman villas; where bullet-riddled ruins blight the cityscape while complex disputes over their ownership remain unresolved; where bills can be settled in USD or LBP (but preferably USD); where Arabic, English and French are spoken; where the two universities – one American Protestant, the other French Roman Catholic – compete for converts; and where holding hands with the opposite sex in public places is disapproved of, while women with fastidiously covered heads smoke hookahs in cafés. It’s no wonder a nasty civil war broke out back in 1976.
One day we had a trip planned – out to the ruins of Baalbeck then on to the Bekaa Valley to visit a famous winery – but bad weather obliged our host to change the itinerary and we went instead to Byblos, taking in a few notable churches on the way. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the history (I didn’t know that the first form of alphabetic writing was discovered on a sarcophagus unearthed at Byblos – or that there is a Roman Catholic branch of the Greek Orthodox Church, for example) but he was also informative regarding the politics of Lebanon. It’s complicated: the various religion-based cultures are further divided by clan and political allegiance. And, intermittently, international pressures are brought to bear in efforts to influence a country which is variously seen as a funnel for middle-eastern wealth, a buffer against Syrian refugees (there is no ferry service from Beirut) and a liberal playground for rich Arabs from the conservative Gulf States. I did my best to make sense of it but I could really do with a diagrammatic learning-aid. That evening, as compensation for the aborted trip to the winery, I savoured a fine bottle of Chateau Musar, put aside thoughts of geopolitics and pondered instead the more agreeable aspect of French-Jesuit missionary activities.
For our last lunch in Beirut we chose the distinctively Lebanese ‘Auntie Salwah’s’, as recommended by the guide but, back in Larnaca that night, I was stricken with a bout of violent vomiting (is vomiting ever not violent?) and the next morning couldn’t face coffee of any kind. Still, I reckon I’ll be OK by the time I get back to safe, familiar cappuccino-land. 

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Beach Bar Bubble

Having been away from home for a couple of weeks I find myself at a familiar stage in the cycle of wandering: feeling homesick for some of the routines and background noises of life back there. Routines can be replicated, albeit with a few compromises – such as going for a walk instead of cross-training at the expensive gym – but there is no Radio 4 to enlighten my mornings and no Channel 4 News to lend structure to my evenings.  Hence, sitting yesterday in warm winter sunshine on the terrace of a simple beach-side cafe with the Mediterranean sea lapping gently three feet below my feet I found it easy to forget, for a while, that there’s a whole world of nasty, tangled politics out there. I also found it easy to order another (quite unnecessary) glass of red, encouraged, perhaps, by the lady at the next table who looked to be about my age and was working her way, with stylish nonchalance, through a whole carafe of white, while reading a novel.
But sooner or later something happens to awaken you from the reverie of la dolce vita. In this instance it was a visit to Nicosia (or Lefkosa, depending on your cultural heritage) where I could not resist the intrigue of crossing the border into the Turkish-occupied northern half of the city although, in the end, the experience turned out to be both dismal and laughable. Imagine showing your passport twice, on the same street, to first the Cypriot Cypriot then the Turkish Cypriot authorities (all of them bored) then, after an hour or so of innocent sightseeing, repeating the performance in reverse. Nicosia is the world’s only divided capital city and one has to ask what the point of it is. Talks are under way to expedite the reunion of the island but, with the latest news from Turkey that the despotic Erdogan has arrested yet another of his hapless citizens for the “crime” of insulting him, I have limited expectations as to the outcome.
In 1974, just 14 years after the British ceded governance of Cyprus back to its inhabitants, Turkish troops invaded the island. I don’t know exactly why, but Cyprus does have a history of being coveted by regional powers – Greeks, Persians, Ptolemies, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, Ottomans and British. It seems it’s the price you pay for having valuable natural resources, a strategic geographical location and a small, defenceless population. Still, you might think that after such a long history of cultural inter-mingling present-day Cypriots would be quite comfortable with the concept: but, despite the strong, positive faction that is working for reunion as a federal republic, there is much evidence on the ground that the indigenous Greeks and Turks prefer to retain the identities of their respective mainland forebears. Even the death this week of George Michael, born and bred in north London, had Greek Cypriots claiming him as one of their own. I’m not sure the Turks are much concerned.
Religious ardour must surely take a good deal of the blame for the inclination of both sides to insist upon their separate identities: the influence is everywhere to be seen in the scale, prominence and proliferation of places of worship. Even the smallest chapels I have been into are richly decorated with what appears to be gold. And in Nicosia, in the grounds of the Archbishopric, stands a big glass-sided ‘garage’ inside which are displayed two extravagant, stretched limousines – one Mercedes, the other Cadillac – which were the chariots of the revered Archbishop Makarios, the first President of the Republic. I detect clear signs here of a universal phenomenon: the systematic appropriation of wealth and power by a religious organisation, and agree with Woody Allen who quipped If God exists, I hope he has a good excuse. It all seems a world away from the beach-bar bubble.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Ancient And Modern

Last week the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society held its customary Christmas lunch at the (Glen) Miller and (Benny) Carter restaurant. The event is the closest most of us come to having a ‘work’s do’ these days and, though the company cannot be said to be as diverse as you might expect at your average party, the very fact of its homogeneity is in itself a celebration of a sort. This year our Glorious Leader, Peter ‘Lucky’ Lloyd, conferred jazzy nicknames on the rest of us and I found myself sitting next to the newly-dubbed Pete ‘Cannonball’ Aspinall and opposite Dave ‘Jelly-Roll’ Rigby. “Just call me Zoot”, I was able to quip.
Having thus dispensed with the seasonal celebrations, my partner and I landed the next day in Pafos, Cyprus, at the start of our customary migration from the tedium of Christmas musak. Yes, Christmas does happen abroad, but it’s easier to shelter from in places where you don’t know anyone.
Now Cyprus, as you will know, is a sun-sea-and-sand holiday destination but, when our family lived here from 1958-60, such pleasures were the reserve only of the British Armed Forces who had been sent in great numbers in the customary, vain attempt to quell an independence movement. Thus my time here is bound to be tinged with nostalgia, mostly of the “It’s all changed” variety. And Pafos certainly has changed: the once sleepy, nondescript town is now not only a haven for ex-pats and holiday-makers but also a designated European Capital of Culture for 2017, along with Denmark’s Aarhus. (None of this should be confused with Britain’s own City of Culture scheme, a quite different concept, for which Hull will be responsible in a few days time.) What qualifies Pafos for its celebrity is the astonishing collection of archaeological sites which testify to its importance as a city from as early as the 4th century BC.
The remains of former palaces, fortresses and tombs are impressive both in extent and sophistication. But as the two of us went from site to site, waking the ticket-office staff from their hibernations, we became aware that visitors are very thin on the ground at this time of year – which is a good thing if you want an unobstructed view of an ancient mosaic, unimpeded access to a rock-cut tomb or eager service in the nearby café. Local businesses, however, must be keen for the tourist season to start up. On day three we drove north to the small fishing harbour of Latsi where we had a splendid lunch in the only restaurant we could find open and where our solitude was barely disturbed by just one other table: otherwise we had the attentions of the charming Olga, our Ukrainian waitress, to ourselves.
Leaving Pafos, we removed ourselves to Limassol where we are staying in an apartment rented from a Russian lady called Ksenia. On the first day we walked in the sunshine along the seafront towards the Old Town, where we got lost and asked a couple of chaps for directions. They happened also to be Russian and, although their English was fine, their local knowledge was lacking. On the second day it rained so we visited the Municipal Art Gallery, where the surprised-looking ladies had to turn the lights on for us; thence to the deserted Museum of Archaeology where a delighted curator proudly and personally ushered us into his exhibition of the real Old Limassol, now an archaeological site just a few kilometres to the west. It was called Amathous and was established in the 11th century BC.
Such antiquity is hard to comprehend, especially if one’s own cultural ascendency is relatively recent. But Mediterranean countries wear their history well, like extra layers of clothing, and so, to my sister – who was lately waxing nostalgic about shopping in Limassol in 1960 and resting afterwards in the big café at the top of Agiou Andreas Street – don’t be too distraught that it’s a Starbucks now. Plus ça change, as they say.

Friday, 16 December 2016

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

While walking down a city side-street the other day I heard the muffled sound of a saxophone running up and down a series of scales. It appeared to be coming from one of the parked cars and, sure enough, it was: from an Uber cab. The driver was sitting behind the wheel, blowing into an alto saxophone. I smiled at him but he was too intent on his playing to notice me. So I made up a story about him: he was a recent immigrant bent on making a career in jazz music but, for the time being, found it necessary to earn his corn by driving the cab. He might, of course, have been a professional Uber driver who just happened to be a saxophone-playing hobbyist, but I didn’t feel inclined to tap on his window to ask: I preferred my, more romantic, version. It made me think of a quote which had stuck in my memory: Vocations which we wanted to pursue, but didn’t, bleed, like colours, on the whole of our existence (Balzac).
Anyway, I was on a mission: to buy a pair of fold-flat reading-specs – the ones that fit handily into the top pocket of a shirt or jacket – for my up-coming travels. They were not easy to find (opticians seem a bit sniffy about anything non-prescription) but eventually I got some in Waterstone’s bookshop and, flush with my success, hopped into the lift to escape the shopping mall. But it’s busy at this time of year and I was swept deep into the car by several women pushing prams, herding toddlers and wielding shopping bags.
“It’s a bit of a squeeze,” said one of the women to her brood, “breathe in!” We all smiled.
“Actually, breathing in makes you bigger,” I said. “You get thinner when you exhale.”
She did not reply but looked at me with a sour expression. She could have been thinking don’t belittle me in front of my children or, perhaps, nobody likes a smart-arse but, whatever she thought, it was obvious that she had no use for the scientifically correct gem of information I had imparted, nor was she in the mood for pedantic banter. On my way out I squeezed past her, avoiding eye-contact but exhaling ostentatiously.
Later I went to the cinema to see Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. It struck me as being a top-notch piece of cinema-craft, lushly and lovingly shot, a prime example of an escapist movie with a cast of nasty characters, a beginning steeped in menace and a resolution that, predictably, turned violent. But I don’t much care for violence and it was the preceding trailer for Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson that stayed in mind as the lights went up. It promised something quite different and I determined to see it later in the week.
I took the specs back to Waterstone’s because they didn’t really work: they were designed to fold flat, certainly, but they were also designed to slide inexorably off one’s nose and into one’s lap – or worse. I timed the outing perfectly so that afterwards I could walk to the cinema, arriving 15 minutes after the advertised screening time so as to avoid sitting through the adverts all over again.
Paterson lived up to my expectation. It is indeed a different type of movie – more of a low-key, everyday story – devoid of violence, full of tenderness, simplicity and honesty. The eponymous hero is a bus driver who writes poetry in his spare time: or he might be a poet who drives a bus in order to pay his way. I'm rooting for the latter.