Friday, 21 April 2017

Good Old Days?

Last week I went to Westward Ho! It’s a nice enough seaside town, a little tatty and run down – as they often are – but undergoing a modest revival thanks to surfers and tourists with a penchant for nostalgia. There is no denying, however, that its name is what mainly distinguishes it: how many place-names include an exclamation mark? Not many, I suspect, although there is a municipality in Quebec that has two!! Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!
My visit was part of a trip down Memory Lane – or I should say Lanes, those comprising the web of routes that connect the towns and hamlets around the coast, combes and valleys of North Devon. Having spent happy times there in my younger days I had great expectations of this latest return tempered, of course, by the knowledge that memory is an unreliable, fawning companion, often obliging with the kind of pleasant associations it knows you prefer and obscuring those which do not fit your idyll. And the places themselves will have changed as ‘progress’ makes its indelible marks. North Devon pre-1988 was relatively inaccessible and its unique cultural identity persisted a little longer than it might otherwise have done. That ended when the A361 trunk road opened, giving expedited access to commerce, industry and the growing number of motorised tourists and commuters encouraged by the easier journey.
But this is not a disaster story: the friends who anchor me to the place are still there and they have not changed. They might sometimes express wistfulness for the time when they felt less pressure from incomers but they are sufficiently well “dug-in” to be philosophical about it. The tourist industry feeds them via the local economy and they want high-speed broadband, good road access and supermarkets like the rest of us. Their children face the problem of expensive housing due to incomers, second-homers and the scarcity of new-build, but this is the same for their contemporaries born and bred in other desirable parts of Britain.
For visitors there are fundamental attractions that are constant: the countryside is pretty, even with the addition of a few wind-turbines; quaint village and town centres are preserved as assets; there is pollock to be had on the menus, pasties in the bakers and dark green laver in the fishmongers. And you can sometimes hear the glorious local accent, with its vowels thick as clotted cream, spoken confidently and proprietorially in contrast to the nondescript babble of incomers. Away from the hubbub is the footpath that makes its way along the Atlantic coast. I walked a section from the estuary at Lynmouth, climbing steeply up and down the sides of a series of combes on the way to Minehead before cutting back inland to Watersmeet where the East Lyn River and Hoar Oak Water join forces in a narrow, densely wooded valley.
All very beautiful, but for a taste of how life used to be in this part of the world it is useful to visit Arlington Court, former seat of local landowners the Chichesters, now owned and run by the National Trust. The estate typifies the way rural life was lived before the First World War: wealth was concentrated in the hands of very few people, social mobility was limited and rural poverty was the norm. The small scale of the “quaint” cottages in the former fishing ports, many of which are now holiday accommodation, reiterates the point. The inhabitants of North Devon have an easier life now than they did back then and Westward Ho! is partly responsible. Built specifically as a holiday resort in 1863, it established a new source of income for the locals; and, if its current revival persists, it might just do the same trick again and earn itself a second exclamation mark!

Up-market seafood trailer at Westward Ho!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Place Prejudice

I’ll tell you now and I’ll tell you firmly, I don’t never want to go to Burnley – the first line of a John Cooper Clarke poem – gives expression to the idea that it’s fine to harbour prejudice against places; which helps me feel better about my refusal to go to Dubai. I want nothing to do with an artificial city that flouts the principles of ecological sustainability and is ruled over by hereditary tyrants who deem it their right to suppress political opposition and deny equality to the female half of the population. In any case, there is nothing there but bling, which is about as relevant to my life as haute couture to an Outback sheep-shearer. Moreover, although I recently read that a former industrial area in the city is being converted into an arts quarter, I am not convinced that it will turn out to be anything other than an art market for the wealthy.
Cooper Clarke is being humorous, of course, but strictly speaking prejudice is, I suppose, prejudice and it’s really not fine for me to dismiss Dubai, or any one of millions of other destinations, as unworthy of my visitation. Without first-hand experience of a place, all one’s impressions depend on anecdote or propaganda. In reality, of course, it is impossible to go everywhere and I must rely on my experiences of the places I can manage to get to. But it’s an imperfect science: over time, things change and conclusions that were reached years ago may become invalid. Take the case of Vesta curry, a pioneering product in the field of pre-prepared meals. As I recall, the packet contained dehydrated curry and rice, the proposition being that you could eat exotic food, at home, in front of the TV, without the hassle of going abroad, or to a restaurant, or learning how to prepare and cook it. I bought into the dream at first but soon realised that there was a compromise: it tasted awful. Consequently, to this day, I shun the packaged meals that populate whole aisles of supermarket shelves, despite the probability that culinary advances and consumer focus groups have led to considerable improvements on Vesta.
However, whilst I can happily live the rest of my days without pre-prepared dinners, I cannot say the same about travelling. Since I am not obliged to venture abroad for the purpose of work, nor to support a football team, I am free (not counting the occasional semi-obligatory visits to relatives or friends) to choose where I go. When deciding on a destination for its own sake, therefore, it’s down to either train-spotting – pursuing a particular interest – or whimsy based on, yes, anecdote and propaganda. I have never been to Russia, for example, a country which these days gets a consistently bad press. Yet I would like to look behind the headlines and commentaries. I am intrigued as to how a country with so turbulent a history of wars, revolutions, repression, famine and hardship – all the things we hear about in the West – has, nevertheless, produced so many great artists. In the fields of painting, music, literature, dance, theatre and architecture there is a plethora of Russian names known around the world as foremost in their field (although, unfortunately, the most widely recognised Russian name presently is Kalashnikov). Maybe I should go to Russia – or, more specifically, Moscow and St. Petersburg, where its artistic and cultural treasures are concentrated.
In case you were wondering, I have been to Burnley. It’s seen better days, to be honest, but I harbour some nostalgia for it as the birthplace of Dave Ratley, the first northerner I ever met, and a damn fine fellow – although he never wanted to go to Guildford.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Romans Remain / Roman Remains

Last week I gave expression to my inner artisan by painting a flight of wooden stairs. It was a simple job but one fraught with a particular anxiety – the risk of painting myself into the vertical equivalent of a corner. I would be working my way down the stairs so it was essential to ensure that, once finished, I would not need to go up again until the paint had dried. I made sure that I placed the radio I was listening to at the bottom. The news was on and there was a fascinating item concerning a glut of cauliflowers due to the weather having been favourable this season. (Actually, I mused, the colour of my paint could be called ‘cauliflower’– although that description would probably be deemed insufficiently alluring for the purpose of marketing.) In the days that followed, I began to notice that recipes for cauliflower were cropping up in all the media – even on my FB page – to the extent that I was reminded of the saying News is what somebody else does not want to be known. Everything else is just advertising.
A few days later I duly bought a couple of cauliflowers at the street-market in Salisbury where I had been on a visit (is anyone immune to advertising?). The drive back to Manchester via trunk roads is long and tedious so, to add a little interest, I detoured via Cirencester and stopped off at Chedworth Roman Villa (remains of) to view the mosaics and admire the ingenious hypocaust underfloor heating system. A dozen more Roman villas are dotted around the area, Cirencester having once been a major settlement on the Fosse Way, but Chedworth is the most impressive. Roman troops were recalled from Britain, quite suddenly, in about 410 AD and their departure was followed by rapid disintegration of the infrastructure they had built during their 500 years of occupation. The native population, finding itself without a police force, proceeded to strip the abandoned assets, using the stones to build dwellings and consigning themselves to life without paved roads for the next 1500 years. Why would they do that?
Roman administration brought stability but at a cost: by appropriating everything for themselves and making sure they kept hold of it, the Romans presided over a system of extreme economic inequality – such as is increasingly the case in, for example, the USA where one percent of the population owns half the national wealth invested in stocks and mutual funds. Meanwhile, the mass of humanity struggles to overcome poverty. Roman villas, for all their grace and technical precocity, were the ancient equivalent of today’s private palaces, symbols of a grotesquely inequitable distribution of wealth. For every nobleman living in a villa there were thousands of peasants living in crude shelters so, when the Romans went off to defend their interests elsewhere, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the natives to re-distribute the wealth among themselves.
Some historians argue that unless there are cataclysmic events, such as the Roman evacuation, wealth will remain concentrated in the hands of the few. British history seems to back this up. The last occasions when there was major re-distribution was during the periods of upheaval following World Wars I and II. In recent years, half-hearted attempts to close down offshore tax-havens and eliminate tax loopholes have all met with limited results and the Government’s recently stated intention to legislate for the attenuation of pay packages for the CEOs of large companies will have limited success: legislation cannot eliminate greed. Revolutions and wars are, apparently, more effective agents of change.
It’s depressing. So, while I contemplate whether I would rather remain relatively poor or endure the uncertain outcomes of war and social upheaval, I distract myself by perfecting a supper-dish fit for a noble: roast cauliflower with chorizo.

Friday, 31 March 2017


The suburb of Heaton Moor used to boast a couple of rival, politically associated clubs but, over the course of the last few years, the hatchet has been buried – perhaps reflecting a general shift towards neo-liberal consensus – and amalgamation has left just one club serving as a non-aligned social venue for the neighbourhood. It was there, last week, that members of the HMJAS gathered to hear Loose Change play a very competent set of jazz-funk tunes. Unfortunately, despite the very reasonable admission price of £3 (supper dish of Lancashire hot-pot included) it turned out to be another of those sparsely attended Wednesday evening gigs which seem to abound in Stockport. Whether this is due to inadequate marketing or fundamental lack of demand, I can’t be sure. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the evening, not least because fellow jazzer and Wonderman reader Dave told me that his mate, who is on the board of the National Portrait Gallery, has promised to install mirrors on the wall in the restaurant there. Those of you who recall my criticism a couple of weeks ago will recognise this as a triumph of blog-lobbying.
My euphoria continued, buoyed by the advent of springtime, and one sunny morning I ventured out to inspect the potted bamboo. For the past two years I have been defending it against aphids – and they are back again! My neighbour – who is Brazilian – came out to tend his plants and we struck up conversation about the Brazilian film Aquarius which I had just seen. He enthused about the starring actor – whose name is too Portuguese to recall – and vowed to go see it next day. On the subject of aphid control, however, he showed less interest, remarking only “there are some very convincing plastic bamboos you can get.” He has a point. Life is, indeed, short.
I didn’t let the return of the aphids spoil my week: too many other events had been clamouring for that distinction. When I collected the campervan from the upholsterers in deepest Lancashire I was delighted with the job they had done. Only later did I discover that, in removing the seats, they had disrupted some electrical connections and failed to restore them. I took the van to my local mechanic who sorted it out quickly but at considerable cost. Afterwards I found some unidentifiable plastic parts lying loose in the glove box. I suppose I will have to go back to the mechanic to enquire about them. It brings to mind the old Flanders & Swann classic song The Gasman Cometh, which employs humour to de-fuse frustration.
It has not been so easy, however, to dispel the gloom that has descended since Our Glorious Leader dispatched the ‘Dear John’ (or ‘Article 50’) letter to the European Union. I know that people argue over whether Brexit will help or hinder international trade, but that point is irrelevant in the long term since agreements can always be negotiated. Which leaves Brexit-lovers with their beloved argument for ‘sovereignty’, a concept which I value less than they: it makes me think only of drawbridges.
Still, springtime fosters regeneration, not only in nature but also in the hearts and minds of men. My partner, having noticed some crumpling in my demeanour, reserved time to conduct for me a session of re-aligning my life-focus. During such an exercise one is required to face up to big questions, such as: Why are we here? Where are we going? How will we get there? Shall we be taking sandwiches?  The session worked its magic. Sitting there, on the sunny terrace of a buzzing urban cafe, having drawn a diagram of my life on A3 paper with multi-coloured pens while sipping good coffee, anything seemed achievable: Brexiters might falter in the face of blog-lobbying; even aphids might be defeated once and for ever.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Who's In Charge?

I was walking through Piccadilly Gardens, quietly contemplating an article I had just read about aerial surveillance, when a violent scuffle erupted on the terrace of the cafe a few yards away. Tables and chairs went clattering around the concrete and a young man fled the scene while three others were wrestled to the ground by plain-clothes policemen shouting their statutory warnings as they struggled to cuff and search their prey. It was an unexpected bit of excitement for a Wednesday morning but reassuring on three counts: first that the authorities are attempting to put a stop to drug trafficking in the Gardens; second that the police gave a running commentary on what was happening; and third, that actual police officers are doing the work, not drones.
Drones? Well, yes. We already have surveillance cameras mounted on poles and helicopters equipped with thermal imaging devices; drones will be next, probably fitted with tasers. They are cheaper than helicopters and admirably suited to MOOTW – Military Operations Other Than War. James Madison, the 4th US President, was remarkably prescient when he said:”The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.” His insight, in itself, is disturbing but what makes matters worse is that drone operators are recruited, so it is rumoured, from the ranks of life-long video-gamers, many of whom are so inured to the inhumane consequences of their targeting that a group of artists has been moved to set up a project called #NotABugSplat, comprising a huge image of a young girl laid on the ground in Pakistan near the epicentre of US drone strikes. Her eyes look straight up at the cameras in the hope of influencing the operators’ perception of the consequences of their actions. Alas, the locals have since torn up the image and used the sheeting as building material, deeming that a more effective use for the project.
The proliferation of drones cannot be stopped – the technology is too easily accessible – but there may be a simple way to limit the potential threats they pose to life and liberty: we could take the toys away from the boys. Technology has always been the preserve of men, but it may be that women, given the chance, could deploy it in less destructive ways. It’s worth recalling here the case of Charles Babbage, inventor of the computing engine, and Ada Lovelace, the visionary mathematician who recognised its potential. When, in 1840, Lovelace saw a demonstration of Babbage’s device she went away and wrote what was the very first computer programme. Spurred on by Ada’s vision, Charles drew up plans for a more advanced version of the engine. But he was ineffective at raising the necessary finance and, though Ada pleaded with him to let her manage the project to fruition, he could not bear to hand over the reins. In the end, Lovelace’s genius foundered on the rocks of male chauvinism. 
But there are signs of change, at last. We now have females in the key positions of Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Head of the Metropolitan Police, Head of London’s Fire Brigade. Add to these achievements the fact that female soldiers will soon be joining their male counterparts in front-line combat operations and all seems set for a shift in the balance of power in favour of women. Whether or not they will do things differently remains a moot point but the real question is whether they will be allowed to, for real power lies not with figureheads but with those who control the nation’s capital and resources. The likely outcome is that we may, for some time to come, just have to make do with WINCE – Women In Nominal Charge of Everything. It’s a start, at least.