Saturday, 17 March 2018

Only Nine Months to Go!

The end of the world is nigh again. I saw the notification, outside Pret a Manger, by Victoria Station, written in black felt-tip on two sheets of cardboard propped against a wall. The sentences were ungrammatical, written more like a mood-poem with words like Lord Jesus, final judgement, angels, fire, destroy, etc. However, it conveyed its message effectively and was unequivocal about the date: December 2018. The presumed author and wild-haired prophet of doom sat at a nearby pavement table, a camouflage-print survivalist rucksack and a freebie golfing umbrella at his feet. He was nursing a Pret beverage and studying a copy of the Metro. Just why he would bother reading about news and current affairs is a mystery, considering that soon they will cease to be. I watched him through the window while I sipped my coffee. Was he was taking a well-earned break from proselytising, or just idly passing the time ‘til December? Whichever, he was making very little impact on his target audience. One person did stop to read the notices, a middle-aged woman carrying shopping bags, but then she glanced disdainfully at the off-duty prophet and plodded on, shaking her head.
I certainly hope the world will not end that soon – there is so much I would like to do that I can’t fit it all into the next nine months – but if it does, it will certainly not be the work of an avenging god and his cohorts of angels. If there were a god, why would he go to all the trouble of creating disobedient humans only to destroy them when they proved to be disobedient? In any case, would he do it just before his son’s birthday? I don’t think so. More likely, if the end comes at all, it will be because of the falling-out of two pumped-up egotists with eccentric hairstyles and itchy trigger-fingers. Still, it got me thinking that I should draw up a list of priorities to allow for life’s shorter-than-expected span. I could make a start by getting up earlier, then eliminating every moment of downtime from my daily schedule e.g. staring into space or watching property-porn on TV. Then I could pick off other pointless activities, such as going to the gym: fitness will not be advantageous in the event of one’s imminent and inevitable demise.
I finished my coffee and, with a renewed sense of urgency, went to catch my train for Margate, one of the places I have been curious to visit – but only since it got its new art gallery, the Turner Contemporary. Margate is one of many seaside resorts that lost its appeal when holidays in Spain became popular. The town’s investment in a ‘destination’ gallery aims to compensate for that loss of trade. I certainly hope it works although, like the Council’s other major developments in recent times – the civic centre, the tower of flats, the shopping centre – it is an ugly brute of a building in a very prominent position. The magic only happens when you step inside: the windows face the sea, so that the marring of Margate, be it new and overbearing or old and decaying, is not visible. Looking out to the sea and sky, it is possible to imagine a positive future for the children busy in the bright studios and workshops.
The main exhibition, currently, is themed to connect with T. S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land. He worked on his creation while in the town, recuperating from a nervous disorder. In 1921, he sat in the ornate Edwardian shelter overlooking Nayland Rocks and wrote “On Margate Sands / I can connect / Nothing with nothing.” A bit like the Council, I thought, as I looked up at the wall of the adjacent bunker-like public toilets, where they had tacked the blue plaque commemorating the poet. How much more ugliness could they conceive in nine months?

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Painfully Obvious

Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day, the culmination of a series of events intended to keep the spotlight on the fight for the equality of the sexes. There was a symbolic IWD procession through town last Saturday and, although I toyed with the notion of joining it to demonstrate my solidarity, I decided not to on the grounds that a) I would have felt like an interloper and b) I have lately developed nasty pains in my upper feet.
Besides, I was set to go shopping for a new pillow. Three years ago another pain afflicted me, attacking my right shoulder while I was in bed. The doctor I consulted had no explanation to offer, other than to say that the shoulder is a very “complex” joint. He offered me a nasty-sounding injection of steroids to numb it temporarily but I opted instead for his suggestion that an orthopaedic pillow and some gentle exercises might help to settle it down. Eventually, the pain went because, I assume, of my assiduous exercise regime and determined use of a brick-like pillow acquired from Ikea. However, now the pain is back. I suspect that the pillow has outlived its efficacy and I am on a mission to find an alternative. The problem, as I was to discover, is that the panoply of pillows on offer is bewildering. They come in many shapes and thicknesses; there are different fillings – feathers, foam, memory foam, polyester, or anti-allergenic fibres; some are elaborately designed to support the neck; and there are options for back, front, or side-sleepers (but none for restless sleepers). In the end, I bought one that I thought might do the trick, though I have embarked, I am sure, on a series of trials that could take a while and involve several discarded pillows.
Meanwhile, the IWD movement gathers momentum for its cause – aided by revelations from high-profile figures in Hollywood and various other businesses. Men can no longer dismiss the sex-equality issue as ‘women’s lib’ nor make light in any other way of the oppression and discrimination many women still endure. The subject fills the media, culture, and the arts and, though I did not join their march, I am supporting the cultural side of things. I went to see Manchester Art Gallery’s retrospective show of Annie Swynnerton, the painter who in 1922 became the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Academy, 154 years after its inception. (It goes almost without saying that she was also a suffragist and a Mancunian.)
Everywhere I look just now, there seems to be another story of women succeeding against the odds. It turns out that Hedy Lamarr was more than just a glamorous film star of the 1940s era: she was an inventor who, among other things, held a patent for the invention of a system to encrypt radio communications. I have just read the memoir of Daphne Phelps, an Englishwoman who moved, on her own, to Sicily in 1946, where she succeeded in rescuing a villa, despite her penniless state and the odds stacked against her by the ultra-patriarchal system.
I finished the book just before taking my painful feet along to the doctor – a woman (I’m getting used to it) – and one I had not seen before. She prodded them to see whether she could make me wince. “Well,” she said, “the foot is very complex,” then, tactfully addressing my age, “It’s probably just wear and tear.” I had suspected it might be but was hoping, nonetheless, for a miracle cure. She offered Ibuprofen and, when I expressed reluctance to mask the problem with painkillers, suggested I could try putting moulded inserts into my shoes. I headed hopefully for the shops but was a little dismayed to find there are many different types of insert. I would like to think I have more important things to do...

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Social Heterogeneity

Though it takes just five minutes, the walk from home to the gym can be quite eventful. Starting in China Town, it passes the ornamental symbolic gate, where I am often caught, inadvertently, in tourists’ photos; then past the ATM on the corner, where the regular beggars have learned not to accost me; thence around the back of the coach station, where travellers sometimes ask for directions to the front of the coach station; then across the main street in the gay village, where I dodge another beggar-cluster and – occasionally – hear a busker; then, finally, past a bar-cum-nightclub that sometimes hosts daytime events for specialised-interest groups, such as Furries, Goths, Transvestites or visiting Belgian football supporters. Last Sunday it was pug owners.
Approaching the bar, I had become aware that I was sharing the pavement with more than the usual number of dog-walkers. Strange, I thought. Stranger still, however, was the fact that the dogs were all of the same breed. Later, on my way home and with my curiosity unabated, I approached a man standing by the door of the bar who had custody of two of these dogs. I asked him what was happening. “Pugfest” was his curt reply. Seeing that I was none the wiser, he repeated it. “Pugfest,” and then, elaborating, “in ‘ere,” he said, cocking his (pug-like) head toward the doorway of the bar. I suppose he deemed it a waste of effort to explain to the uninitiated the purpose of a Pugfest, let alone why it should be held in a bar in the gay village but, since he was disinclined to engage further, I went on my way, stepping deftly over a trio of tiny turds on the pavement.
Later, however, I looked up pugs on the internet. What I discovered was intriguing. They are bred as lapdogs, a project which seems to have been successful in that they are small and deemed to be playful, charming, docile, clever and sociable. On the downside, however, they are prone to flatulence, which must be something of a disincentive to actually holding them on one’s lap. But perhaps the dogs manage to overcome any consequent embarrassment or unpleasantness by deploying one of the other traits attributed to them – a good sense of humour. So far, so amusing; but there is a seriously undesirable consequence of their breeding – the panoply of health problems inherited from and exaggerated by their small gene pool. I am indifferent to dogs (and suspicious of the notion of their ‘ownership’) and, though some people interpret my indifference as dislike, it is nothing of the sort. The absence of love does not imply the presence of hate. From a neutral stance then, it seems fair to ask whether the breeding of pugs constitutes cruelty, since their genetic manipulation disregards the creatures’ suffering in order to maximise their human entertainment-value.
So, are pug-owners cruel people? Encounters like these, brief though they may be, highlight something that we know exists, yet do not necessarily or ordinarily engage with: social diversity. The walk to the gym takes me past people of various interests, beliefs, backgrounds and ambitions. Sometimes I speak to them. Sometimes I merely observe. Inevitably, I make value judgements about them. By the end of the walk, I am inclined to marvel that so many people, of so many different persuasions, can actually live together in relative harmony. Do we really have anything in common other than a degree of tolerance that keeps the peace? How do I respect the pug owner while pitying the pug? And if I were to stage a protest at the next Pugfest, would they set the dogs on me?

Saturday, 24 February 2018

My Sporting Heritage

Whenever I have attended a live sporting event, I have left the ground disappointed – if not early. Apart from one cricket match at Lords back in 1996, when a full-figured lady streaker ran across the pitch in my direction, nothing exciting has ever happened. Admittedly, I have attended very few events (not being a sports fan) and I may have been unlucky that they were all dull. Nevertheless, I am not prepared to kiss any more frogs – especially after last week’s rugby match between the Sharks and the Saracens, teams with names so misleadingly scintillating that they probably contravene the Trades Description Act.
Despite all this, I am partial to watching the occasional game of rugby on TV, thereby eliminating the inconveniences of driving and queuing, the inferior quality of refreshments, the high cost of tickets and – not least – the poor view of the action (supposing there is any). Perhaps the faint but lingering interest I have in the game is a legacy of my education at a boarding school in Plymouth, where participation was mandatory for all boys in possession of four functioning limbs. I was neither an accomplished nor enthusiastic player but I did have an uncle who played for Plymouth Albion. Let’s just put my attachment down to nostalgia, a feeling that has dominated the last few days especially, since I have been on a trip, with my partner, to Plymouth, the city I left in 1966 and have visited only rarely since.
A lot has changed there – as one might expect. For one thing, the old school is gone, its land sold to developers long ago. This saved my partner from the ritual of having to go and see it although, in fairness, she was indulgent when listening to my commentary on other landmarks. These included places such as the outdoor pools where I swam as a child, the shelter on the prom where I first kissed a girl, the hall where I danced to Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps and the pub where I bought my first (illegal) pint. Her tolerance of my nostalgia was exemplary, though it may have been enhanced by the fact that the sun was shining and the feel-good factor was high. The city’s extensive and varied seafront, from the Mayflower Steps at the Barbican, westwards around the Hoe, to the former Royal Naval stronghold at Mount Wise, looked at its best. And there was decent espresso where once there had been only NescafĂ©; sourdough where once there was only Wonderloaf.
Since Elizabethan times, the local economy has been dominated by the Royal Navy but, now that the “Senior Service” is shrunk to a fraction of the size it used to be, some fundamental changes are manifest. Admiralty land and buildings have been sold off, enabling the development of housing where once the industrial/military complex hogged all the best sea-facing locations. Not that sea-facing locations mattered to me as a schoolboy: I was more impressed by the futuristic architecture of the city’s central area, re-fashioned in the 1950s after the war-time bombings. The wide boulevards, lined with the clean contemporary temples of retail, intersected by the broad Armada Way running south to the war monument on the Hoe, all seemed perfect to me. Nowadays the shops, having to adapt to new ways of doing business, are under strain and some of them are looking less than glamorous. Nevertheless, the original street-plan remains harmoniously intact and, as such, lives up to the confident, optimistic vision of the future that inspired it and that appealed so much to my youthful idealism.
Overall, with encouraging signs of a revival of economic fortune based on tourism and higher education, the old place certainly has a lot more to interest me than just nostalgia.

Saturday, 17 February 2018


One evening last week I was reading David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men when, realising eventually that my power of concentration was no longer equal to the complexities of his imaginative and inventive prose, I gave up. I closed the book and picked up instead one that I had previously read and knew to be less taxing – Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. It’s an especially easy read for me because I have an affinity with the notion of travelling around Britain savouring the peculiarities of its varied parts. In fact, as it happened, I was due to set off the next morning on just such an expedition.
The destination was Barnard Castle, a classic market town on the upper reaches of the River Tees. I say classic because, like Appleby 30 miles to the west, its core is recognisably intact: it straddles a river, has a castle, a broad main street for the market stalls and numerous pubs, all of which are still trading. My visit did not coincide with market day but the shops compensated for that: many are owner-managed and are stocked therefore with local produce and specialities offered by friendly – sometimes eccentric – characters. Consequently, I am now the happy possessor of a hand-brush made of wood and bristle and a bag of small, brown, dried peas known as carlins which, although normally used as animal feed, are eaten by locals on a particular day in the ritual run-up to Easter. The brush will certainly find a purpose in the campervan but the carlins will probably remain in the back of a cupboard long after Easter has been and gone.
Dried peas apart, the food available in Castle Barnard is mouthwatering, especially for those who, like me, have a fondness for old-fashioned delicacies such as hazlet, pressed tongue, black pudding, pease pudding, faggots, pork pies, farmhouse cheese and artisan bread. With two butchers’ shops, three bakers and four grocers all on the same street, the ratio of outlets for fresh, locally sourced produce to density of population exceeds the wildest dreams of a foodie resident in central Manchester. I embarked on an orgy of stocking-up before we left the area, afraid that, if I did not support them, the shopkeepers would go out of business. I was mindful of the recent news headline that half of all the food now bought in Britain has been “processed” – which is to say that someone has added to it that which would be better left out i.e. sugar, palm oil, various chemicals and excessive quantities of salt and fat. This morning’s headlines were no surprise to me, therefore: the consumption of processed food contributes not only to obesity, but also the likelihood of contracting cancer. I hate to say “I told you so” but we hippies ( I was loosely associated) knew back in the day that ingesting food additives was unlikely to be good for one’s health, hence the popularity of our ‘fads’ such as brown rice, wholemeal bread, vegetarianism, macrobiotics etc. Not so much notice was taken of the medical advice concerning the ingestion of mind-bending chemicals, but no one is perfect. Nor did we hippies diet in vain: we sowed the seeds so that, alongside the rise of processed food, there is now a growing band of vegans determined to save the planet from excess, animals from harm and their digestive systems from contamination.
But the excursion was not all about food. One day was devoted to a walk up and down Teesdale, following the fast-flowing river that attracts daring canoeists in helmets and rubber onesies. Another was spent following the river Wear through nearby Durham, where the water is slow and wide and competitive rowing is the preferred sport. Durham is rightly famous for its history, its cathedral, its castle and its university, the library of which is named for one of its ex-chancellors - Bill Bryson.