Saturday, 12 August 2017

Your History: Pay Per View

Back in the early 1700s, the fabulously wealthy Delaval family commissioned starchitect of the day, Sir John Vanbrugh, to design and build them a grand residence at Seaton on the Northumberland coast. The project went well and the outcome was considered to be Sir John’s finest work. The family entertained there lavishly – until 1822 when, while they were spending Christmas in London, a fierce fire severely damaged the main hall. Word had been sent to the servants to warm the house prior to the family’s return and it may be that the servants had been over-zealous, or careless, or that one of them harboured a grudge and was out for revenge. The accepted story is that the fire was spread by the presence of crows in the chimneys, but I prefer the grudge theory: after all, the Delaval fortune came from the land that was given them by William the Conqueror, who had taken it by force. Inheritance of land is not a valid moral justification for ownership.
I had previously driven eastwards, following Hadrian’s Wall towards Newcastle, on the way noting the evidence of thousands of years of territorial disputes that permeates not only the landscape but also the place-names, such as Rudchester, where I turned north, to the walled town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. After the Romans departed, it straddled the contested border between Scotland and England, changing hands 14 times. Now, with its picturesque ancient buildings, remnants of its fortifications and a significant position at the mouth of the salmon-rich river, it remains a desirable place to live and I could not help peering into estate agents’ windows to indulge in some fantasy house-hunting – so much more enjoyable than the real thing.
Ruined castles and their ecclesiastical equivalent, abbeys, abound in NE England. If you are interested in getting a close look at them, however, there is a price to be paid, since they are often in the custody of an outfit called English Heritage, a charity devised to privatise and outsource conservation of the nation’s historically significant piles of stone. On this trip, I bit the bullet and subscribed to an annual membership, since the price of individual admissions would have been onerous. They gave me a map of England showing all their sites, so I can be sure to get value for money by calling in at each one as I pass. This, however, is challenging, since I am doing the same with my National Trust membership. At Lindisfarne, at least, there is an opportunity to bag two in one - the abbey on one membership and the castle on the other – or there would be if the castle were not currently closed for refurbishment. So, I used the time saved to walk around the bleak island and try to imagine the hardship endured by Cuthbert who, back in the 13th century, chose this sparsely populated, windswept spit of land as the launch pad for his mission to spread Christianity. Further down the coast, past the still-inhabited Bamburgh castle and the evocative ruins of Dunstanborough castle, the remains of another Cuthbert-inspired abbey, Whitley, perch high on a promontory at Tynemouth. Once isolated, it is nowadays at the edge of a conurbation, overlooking a cove that is home to Riley’s Fish Shack, where local seafood is prepared with respect and served with cool, contemporary panache.
 But in the rich hinterland of Northumbria lurks another grand house built on the proceeds of land inherited from the Normans – Wallington. However, its last owner, Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan, declared himself a socialist and, believing that private ownership of land was inconsistent with socialist principles, gave the estate back to the people (via the National Trust) – albeit after he had lived out his life there. Despite his example, alas, Norman socialists remain thin on the ground.


Friday, 4 August 2017

In Search of What?


Many of us in the later stages of life, unencumbered by ill-health, untethered from regular employment and unhindered by family obligations, find ourselves able to travel a good deal more than previously – just for the fun of it, the adventure of it, the heady illusion of freedom it promises. In a way this represents a return to one’s youth, when the yearning to explore the world beyond trumped the prospect of settling down prematurely to a predictable life-plan. Unlike in youth, however, we have gained useful experience: we know to avoid dull destinations, dangerous situations and tiresome companions. As for whether or not we have the means to travel first-class, that should not impinge on our determination to embark: there is a case to be made that cosseting dulls the edge of an experience. (On the other hand, however, there are times when a glass of champagne and a comfortable seat epitomise the pleasure of getting from A to B.) Currently, my mode of travel is by campervan.
So what is it about travel that appeals? After all, for many it is a miserable experience, something to be endured as a means to an end: ask anyone who passes through an airport during peak holiday season, or who has no choice but to drive when the roads are busiest. How would they regard the Taoist saying “the journey is the reward” or Buddah’s pronouncement “it is better to travel than to arrive” or R.L. Stevenson’s “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”? Leaving aside the metaphorical allusions, they would probably disagree and make, instead, a strong case for the primacy of destination over journey. The secret of happy campervanning, however, is the successful combination of the two; and the means required to accomplish this are a generous time-span, a flexible schedule and a surfeit of appealing places to go – all of which, I am happy to say, are available to me and those in similar circumstances.
Summertime is campervanning time. The days are long and there is maximum chance of catching fair weather for healthy outdoor pursuits such as hiking, biking and al fresco wining and dining. Intersperse these activities with bouts of exploration of the local architecture, history, customs and curiosities and there is barely time to keep up with current affairs in what quickly becomes “the outside world.” In fact, I find it necessary to return to base camp (home) periodically for the purpose of maintaining some of life’s essentials – such as watching films, attending gigs, rendezvousing with friends and attending medical appointments. On a brief return last week I saw four films: David Lynch: The Art Life, The Death of Louis XIV, Dunkirk and The Beguiled (the last of these being the least beguiling); on another flying visit I managed to catch seven gigs at the Manchester Jazz Festival. The next planned return (I am currently on the Northumbrian coast) will involve a rendezvous or two but, predictably, my (non-critical) hospital appointment has been cancelled without explanation.
Meanwhile the travel adventure continues and includes a pet project – ad hoc research into the extent to which coffee-shop chains have infiltrated small towns, making available decent coffee and croissants where, in years gone by, neither was to be had. However, I notice a growing number of local entrepreneurs have latched on to the phenomenon of townies wanting espresso and begun to play Costa and Nero at their own game – often with superior product and more personal service. Independents fight back!
But the last word on the art of successful campervanning goes to Rousseau, who wrote (perhaps a propos something entirely different) “the happiest is the person who suffers least pain, the most miserable who enjoys the least pleasure” and it is in that spirit that I navigate the byways of Britain.


Friday, 28 July 2017

Life on the Edge

There’s remote and there’s more remote: right now we’re merely remote, situated, as we are, in a camping field on a cliff-top in southwest Wales. At least, it feels remote, looking out at a sea with no boats and all around nothing but the odd farmhouse or holiday cottage. The nearest shop is a 20 minute walk away and, although I know the same can be said of many a suburb, it’s the lack of people and motors that makes the difference. The sense of remoteness, however, is deceptive: within an hour we could drive to a sizeable town, with a high street full of Italian-themed coffee shops occupying former premium retail premises.
“More remote” describes the place we were at last week: Fionnaphort, on the western-most tip of the Isle of Mull, is essentially a transit point for the busloads of tourists who turn up daily for the ten-minute ferry ride west to the Isle of Iona. However, it does have a shop and, within it, a Post Office, where my partner selected a postcard and asked for a stamp. Without any hint of humour, the man took the money for the postcard and asked her to step slightly to the left where the Post Office counter is located so that the stamp could be sold under a separate transaction. Amused by this, we then attempted to book a boat trip to the uninhabited Isle of Staffa. There was no booking office, simply a hoarding bearing the times, prices and a phone number. However, there is no phone signal and the public phone is out of order. “Och, jest tern up,” advised the young girl in the seafood kiosk but when we did, the boat was full. “It’s because the weather’s nice,” said the captain/bosun/purser/guide, “Do you want to book for tomorrow?” We did. He scribbled my name on the back of a scrap of paper and sailed off. One soon comes to accept that informality and idiosyncrasy are part of the charm of life on the edge.
The weather next day was even fairer, so we determined to be at the quay early and, while we were waiting, try the seafood at the kiosk. There was, unfortunately, no dressed crab – my favourite – but the girl assured us that her dad was out in the boat and would soon arrive with fresh supplies. So I made do with langoustines and we sat outside watching the tourists come and go from Iona, while a young piper busked alongside. I took the time to contemplate the attraction of this place to its visitors, many of whom are foreigners: North Americans of Scottish extraction, drawn to their ancestral lands, like salmon returning to their spawning grounds; land-locked Europeans, savouring the novelty of rugged coastlines at the very edge of their continent; and British townies like us, getting a fix of nature, at little cost and in relative safety and comfort. As for the locals, those who choose to call the place home, I can only speculate why as, to my shame, I have not transcended the visitor experience to engage with them on a personal level.
There is, incongruously, a ‘fine-dining’ restaurant, Ninth Wave in a house outside Fionnaphort, where we and a party of friends had dinner one evening. It remains a mystery to me how it sustains a customer base, being in such a remote spot (our friends had to drive 90 minutes, each way), but the cooking is exquisite, in a finicky-foodie sort of way. More to our liking, however, was The Crofters’ Kitchen, two miles up the road to nowhere, where a group of what used to be called hippies has opened a shop and cafe offering home-grown produce, baked goods and bought-in wholefoods. These two ventures are admirable additions to run-of-the-mill tourist catering but I do fret about how they will fare in the winter, when life on the edge must get quite bleak. I would like to be there to find out and, in the process, make deeper contact with the locals.

  

Friday, 14 July 2017

Public Poverty

Needing to fix a shelf to the wall, I dug out my cordless drill from the toolbox, only to find that the battery would no longer take a charge. The drill is so old that replacement parts are not available but, even if they were, I would have been unable to resist buying the nifty new drill I already had my eye on. At the almost disposable price of twenty quid, it comes complete with a little LED spotlight and a tiny, lithium-ion battery – the same technology as is deployed by Elon Musk in his electric cars and (on a much larger scale) the back-up system he is about to build for the South Australia power grid. Elon Musk appears to belong to a rare breed of billionaires who want to save the planet.
I am so pleased with the new drill that, with the zeal of a demented hobbyist, I have been seeking more home-improvement projects. Meanwhile, I had to dispose of the old drill and, although I felt guilty about the eco-ethics of throwing it in the bin, where else was it to go? The bin-store is in the narrow street behind our block where, three weeks ago, a cavity opened in the Victorian-era road. The Council came and put a plastic fence around it but have not been back since. I was inspecting the cavity to gauge whether it had deepened, when a scruffy-looking old bloke shambled up to me and we had a brief exchange. When I told him the Council had informed me that they were short of funds for road repairs, he launched into a ranting exposé of Council corruption, which included allegations of the misappropriation of £50 million of National Lottery funds, the Tory conspiracy to impoverish us all and a lot of other stuff that was, frankly, unintelligible. Perhaps he had evidence to back up his case, however I was not inclined to engage him for fear of being stuck there for hours in the company of someone who might have been an erudite but eccentric specialist on the subject, but looked more like a fanatical conspiracy theorist with a grudge. I uttered a polite platitude and he shuffled off, scanning the pavement for cigarette butts. Later, however, I had cause to ponder his point of view.
I was at the Town Hall, a Grade 1 listed building in the “fabulously gothic” style. I went there to listen to a piece of recorded music, one of several site-specific compositions commissioned as part of the Manchester International Festival. The music is ambient and plays throughout the vaulted, lavishly-ornamented corridors. It’s a short piece, but atmospheric and long enough to cause the listener to linger and marvel at the architecture, the like of which will never be built again. I got aesthetic pleasure from the experience, but the man I had encountered earlier would surely have objected to the allocation of public funds to such frivolity and pointed out that The Council has a statutory duty to repair roads, not fund art installations.
Actually, the shortage of funding in local government is affecting much more than minor road maintenance: environmental degradation on a larger scale looms with the neglect and in some cases selling-off of parks. Extrapolated to a global scale, there is news that the Brazilian Government has withdrawn so much funding for the agency that protects its rainforest that deforestation is again in full swing. Whereas the USA’s Republicans have publicly trashed the notion of ecological responsibility in their determination to transpose democracy into plutocracy, the Brazilian Government is not so brazen: apparently, it pays lip service to conservation while favouring the big business lobby.
It remains to be seen whether the band of billionaires who benefit from such politics will act philanthropically to save the planet; or whether developing technology can or will be deployed to the same end. Meanwhile Elon Musk appears to be hedging his bets: he has a plan to colonise Mars as a retreat from ruined Earth and is already selling places to those who can afford them.


  

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Disrupting Classes

This year’s opening event of the Manchester International Festival was one in which professional performers played no part. Instead, the spotlight was on a selection of citizens from various walks of life, strutting their stuff, one-by-one, along a raised catwalk, while information about them was projected onto huge screens. It was an open-air event, free to view and therefore socially inclusive in all respects. The participants – whether established, public figures or homeless individuals struggling to put a life together – all got a cheer from the crowd, simply for being who they were. The genius of the event lay in its egalitarian intention: nobody was presented as more special than anyone else.
When they all left that stage, however, the reality of social inequality would surely re-establish itself. The homeless man would still be homeless, the recovering addict would revert to spending her days seeking support from diminished social services and the well-paid professional would still be well-paid and professional. So was this a performance, or was it another of those political expressions for which the city has been notorious ever since Queen Victoria declared it a hotbed of troublesome anti-establishment activists? I hope it was the latter. For, despite the earnest wish harboured by so many for integration, society persists as a collection of bubbles bumping in to one another.
It was interesting to see this in another context: the exhibition at Tate Liverpool, Portraying a Nation: Germany 1919-1933, which features the works of Otto Dix and the photographer August Sander, both of whom made images of their contemporaries in the various social strata. Sander’s approach took was to show his subjects in the specific context of their social standing and occupations. There were, for example, tradesmen standing proudly in their work-wear and doctors, sombre-looking, moustachioed gents, trussed up in three-piece tweed suits to indicate their gravitas and high standing in the middle classes. Sander’s body of work reveals a Western European social model that still exists, in essence.
However, as the mighty Bob revealed as far back as 1968, “the times they are a’changing” and a project such as Sander’s, if it were to be attempted today, would turn up some very different images. At the local Health Centre last week, the doctor who saw me was a very young woman of African descent, friendly, personable, and impeccably middle-class-English in her manner. (I assume she is also a capable doctor, though her skills were not stretched on this occasion.) In encountering her, I was delighted to see some evidence of social mobility that was perhaps unthinkable a generation ago.
Nevertheless, those who aspire to upward social mobility face challenges that they may not have factored in to their plans: the profession of doctor is just one of many that are losing ground in terms of prestige and consequent earning-power because of the rise of computing power and the development of robotics. Anecdotally, a friend told me that a surgeon had advised him to postpone proposed knee surgery for a few years until the procedure has been programmed in to a robot. The outcome of such a delicate operation should not be entrusted to an unreliable human unless absolutely necessary. Moreover, the writing is on the wall for GPs in respect of their diagnostic function: an individual doctor will have a limited amount of knowledge at their disposal, whereas a robot could, theoretically, have all of human knowledge available within seconds, thereby making diagnosis more of a science and less of a guessing game.
As artificial intelligence becomes more widely available, the currency of knowledge, as banked by specialists, will devalue, while qualities such as humanity and compassion will attract a premium: perhaps that is when we will see big pay rises for nurses and carers.