Saturday, 16 August 2014

Virtual Travelling

The prospect of taking a trip to a place I've never been before has always excited me - especially if that place is in a foreign country. I like to learn a little about the destination by reading and hearsay and then let my imagination go to work, elevating it - in the manner of a holiday brochure or a Royal Geographical magazine feature - into a place of mystery, wonder, beauty or whatever. Our forthcoming visit to the Cote d'Azure, however, has not enthused me in the usual way. Could it be that my appetite for adventure is waning? Or is going there simply not much of an adventure?

The answer may lie partly in familiarity, brought about by the easy abundance of images, information and opinion available in the media and on the net. Before you set foot in a place it is now possible to tour it virtually, canvas the experiences of a variety of strangers, check the weather forecast, and anticipate every meal. It's got to the point of questioning whether it's actually worth paying to go there at all - unless of course you have some specific reason. Be that as it may, our flight is booked and, after many hours spent on comparison websites, so is the hotel.

Meanwhile we have been exploring closer to home - a farmers market on Hampstead Heath - where I found I was having a discussion with myself. Should it be "farmers' market" or "farmers market"? The possessive apostrophe implies ownership by farmers, whereas the unqualified plural implies that farmers themselves are being offered for sale. But what about the bakery stalls? Surely "produce market" would describe the enterprise more accurately? Just as I was coming to the painfully logical conclusion that the apostrophe is shorthand for the absence of intermediary retailers, I spotted a pile of punnets full of gooseberries. "They're very early," I said nodding in their direction.
"They're not gooseberries. They're cucamelons," said my partner.
"A cross between cucumber and melon."
"What's the point of those?" I huffed and turned my attention to the more appealing artisan pies on the adjacent stall.

We bought the makings of a picnic and laboured uphill towards a place with a view, all the while taking turns at suggesting exotic destinations for our traditional escape from Christmas - which is not so easy: I remember once, in Marrakech, being urged by a stallholder to buy an inflatable Santa; and another time, at an eco-lodge in Dakhla oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, being surprised to see tinsel on the dining table. These may be the merest token trappings of the festival but they confounded our efforts at denial and mocked our attempt to establish a counter-culture.
But our thoughts were diverted by the overheard conversation of a trio of teenage girls accompanied by an adult woman. It's not often - never, actually - that I hear teenage girls vying to out-do each other in their knowledge of Homer (not Simpson) and so I listened with interest: "All the best stories are in The Odyssey," claimed one.
"But what about the wooden horse of Troy," said another?
"That's in The Iliad," came a reply.
"But was it true? I mean I know there was one in the film but was it true?"
"Check it on Epicadvisor," said her pal, brandishing a phone.

Eventually we decided to consider going to Beirut, agreeing that although it won't be a Christmas-free zone, it should at least have a "bit of an edge" to it. Back at home, having been tasked with researching hotels, I scanned endless identical websites for one that looked a bit ethnic or exotic but my attention wandered after an hour or so: instead I found myself Googling "cucamelon". Or should that be "cucumelon"?

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Home Is Where The Head Is

I've had cause to re-assess the phrase "quiet leafy suburb". Temporarily relocated to one such in London, I sat this morning on the patio, enjoying the summer warmth and the view of the lush and extensive garden, while listening to the sound of birdsong - disturbed only occasionally by over-flying jets on their way to and from Heathrow. But at nine o'clock the neighbours' workmen arrived: to the left they began to saw and hammer at wooden decking; to the right they started grinding through concrete paving blocks; and, somewhere behind the trees at the bottom of the garden, they kicked a lawn mower into action. Continuous maintenance and improvement, it seems, go with the territory.

Otherwise it may still be described as "quiet" in a non-literal sense: apart from the presence of tradesmen there is no evidence of any other activity. I suppose that is what the inhabitants value and want to preserve. A ten minute walk away is Fenton House - an elegant 17th century townhouse, lovingly preserved by the National Trust. Yesterday I bought some early apples from its orchard and ate one in its perfect garden while watching the bees rummage through the multi-coloured blooms. Who would want to change such a pleasing setting?

But I haven't been spending all my days sitting in gardens: I also took a train to the south coast to meet with my room-mate from another era, forty years ago. We hadn't seen each other in all that time and, although age had made itself apparent in his physical being, there was no change in his charming demeanour. He lives now in a "quiet leafy suburb" and during our reminiscences he told me that he is very happy there and that he prefers things not to change (even though he accepts the futility of this hope). Like most of us he lives in an inherited habitat, one made by previous generations to suit the ways in which they lived. We may tinker with the layout, modernise the facilities and update the decor, but otherwise we are constrained - physically and psychologically - by the buildings and infrastructure we inhabit. To what extent do they define the way we live?

I got some sort of an answer when I visited another National Trust house near Esher. Just before WW II the architect Patrick Gwynne persuaded his parents to let him demolish the Victorian family house and build a replacement, in the same grounds but further away from the increasingly busy Portsmouth Road. This was The Homewood, a modernist triumph - and I say triumph because there was and still is so much resistance to the notion of modernist architecture in our domestic dwellings. He did not compromise on the principle of designing a sleek “machine for living”, so much so that, during our guided tour of the house, some commented on the “eccentricity” of his rigour. The house was tailored to the life he wanted to lead and he was fortunate to be wealthy enough to indulge his convictions.

Patrick Gwynne lost his parents soon after the house was completed. He lived there, never marrying, with his sister whom he outlived. Without offspring he was able to refine the house further to suit his own purposes and ideals which otherwise might have become diluted. His architectural practice was successful but he was never commissioned to replicate the design of The Homewood. Perhaps his vision of the perfect house was too extreme - or even alien - for others to contemplate. It would have suited me.

But there was one thing he couldn't control: walking around the immaculate and thoughtfully landscaped gardens I noticed that that there was no escaping the intrusion of traffic noise from the Portsmouth Road.

The Homewood

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Let's Have a Big Round of Applause for...

I attended my friends' wedding last week and, although it was a lay ceremony, several elements of it resembled the traditional Christian format: for example, the venue - a splendidly elaborate Unitarian church. At the end, when they walked down the aisle newly-wed, we broke into a round of applause. It seemed the thing to do at the time but, on reflection, I'm not so sure it was. I think of applause as being a form of reward for the efforts of those who have earned it - people who win races, sing arias or otherwise excel by honing their skills in order to achieve remarkable things. Newly-weds don't really qualify on these criteria.

In the course of traditional weddings conducted in church, behaviour is prescribed according to the ceremonial format: everyone is told exactly what to do and guests are not encouraged to deviate from the script. There are no spontaneous gestures except for discreet smiles and nods towards the bride and groom as they pass up and down the aisle. Congratulations are given personally, outside the church. But with more relaxed formats evolving, there can be ambiguity as to how we, the guests, should express our congratulations. If there are no instructions we must ad-lib as best we can. It would be helpful if someone would compose a special song - a bit like Happy Birthday - which we can all sing together at the end of proceedings. I so want to do the right thing.

The next day we were on the London train for a scheduled stay in Hampstead. I had earlier read a newspaper article entitled Another French Bakery Opens in Hampstead which explained that this proliferation is due to the increasing number of French people who are choosing to live there. Since a disproportionate part of my time is spent grumbling about the poor quality of the bread available in shops and trying to track down the real stuff, i.e. made with good flour, additive-free and slow-risen, this constituted a good-news story for me as well as the émigrés. The French may have their weak points but baking is not among them.

We alighted at Hampstead tube station and made our way to the lift among a gaggle of young French people. Emerging on to the busy, sunlit street the first sound we heard was that of a busker playing the accordion. He was wringing out the kind of sentimental tunes which I always associate with the soundtracks to those old, black and white films set in Paris. He might have been wearing a beret and a neckerchief - or I might have imagined it. All around us was the exuberant sound of French being spoken, interspersed by occasional fragments of conversation in our native tongue.

 And there were the bakeries, three of them within a hundred yards (or perhaps I should use metres) of where we stood, their showy window displays flaunting their foreign origins and shaming their dowdy neighbours. I imagined the manager of the faux French Café Rouge nearby growing daily more anxious about his declining takings.

I feasted visually on the pastries, tarts and gateaux meticulously arranged in symmetrical, colour-coded arrays. I planned a delicious picnic hamper full of fare selected from the stacks of baguettes, rolls and croissants artfully slit and stuffed generously with cheese, charcuterie and salad.

And then there was the bread, piled into wicker baskets, stashed into wooden cubby holes or perched on the counter-tops: white sourdough, sourdough with 15% rye, wholemeal for toast, spelt with sunflower seeds, walnut and apricot boules, pain de compagne and olive-stuffed sticks. If I were a spontaneous person I might have burst into delighted applause.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Mark of the Butterfly

When July comes around I look forward to the local jazz festival which, happening just yards from home, is very convenient for dipping in and out of. I like the idea of lazy summer afternoons and balmy evenings spent sitting in the Town Hall square, supping ale while jazz fills the air, captivating unconverted passers-by and wafting over the encircling traffic. The problem, of course, is that the weather doesn't always oblige. Even in late July the square can be a wet and windy place and a retreat to the shelter of the marquee means the music has to compete with the sound of rain beating down on canvas.

This year there's a heatwave, which is good for all concerned except, unfortunately, me. A conflict of interests exists, since my partner and I agreed to pre-allocate any spells of fine weather to our "let's walk the Wales Coast Path" project, begun a few weeks ago. So, I had just time to catch an opening gig before loading up the campervan to head west over the hills towards Aberdovey. A deal is a deal - and besides, I have invested in expensive, state-of-the-art hiking sandals.

We walked two days, during which we were mostly alone. On Day One we met only one other person - a man employed to keep the path clear of undergrowth. On Day Two, where the path goes by Aberystwyth, we were joined on stretches by dog-walkers (several of whom were carrying their exhausted, heat-stricken pets) and by a few casual strollers. Only one 'serious' hiker came by - a chap who was raising money for a charity by walking not only the coast but also the inland border of Wales. I am now worried that, having spent a considerable sum on establishing the path, the authorities may follow up with a cost/benefit analysis of their investment - perhaps by using drones to spot walkers. If they do they might conclude that it's not really worthwhile spending more money on maintenance.

But if people were thin on the ground, there was an abundance of butterflies - mostly brown ones with geometrical patterns of red splashes on their wings - and judging from their playful, skittering duets it appeared to be their time of courtship. They fluttered so effortlessly around us that our own progress felt sweaty and cumbersome in comparison.

Coastal walking has its hazards. When the July sky is clear, for example, precautions must be taken against sunburn and over-heating. Having only just regrown the skin on my forearms, which had been burned off on the first outing, I made sure this time that they were smothered in factor 30.  Another, less obvious problem is ankle-strain: the terrain inevitably slopes in one direction - towards the sea - and this eventually takes a toll on the joints and muscles. After enduring two such days of lopsided walking I devised a plan to compensate for the effect: in future, walk each consecutive stretch in opposite directions. This will require complicated logistical planning but should be effective.

On the evening of Day Two, while soothing my ankles with a glass of Valpolicella, I took a phone call from my pal back at home asking if I would join him for an impromptu beer-and-jazz session. "I'm in a field in Wales," I said, trying but failing to put a gloss on it.

Tootling home on Day Three, fantasising about finding an artisan bakery, a deli and a perfect spot for a picnic, we turned hopefully into the "Historic Market Town" of Llanidloes and were delighted to find that it is indeed an oasis of wholefood retailing. We joyfully stocked our larder and later, while picnicking among the isolated, romantic ruins of Dolforwyn Castle, I kicked off my sandals. I had not noticed them before but there, on the top of each foot, were geometrical patterns of red splashes.

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.