Friday, 23 June 2017

Air-Con Discomfort

In Manchester, the heatwave continues and I have availed myself of the air-con in a new coffee-bar that has opened in the lobby of the hotel across the road. It’s a good place to cool down, quiet and comfortable, with a friendly barista who is ‘passionate’ about coffee. Nevertheless, somewhere in the back of my conscience lurks a qualm. It has to do with the state of the environment and a statistic I read recently: in 2015, the power consumed by air-con units in the USA exceeded that used in the whole of Africa for everything. Air-con is essentially selfish: not only does it consume power, but it also dumps the heat extracted from interior spaces to the atmosphere, thereby exacerbating global warming. It was partly guilt at my participation in this ecologically questionable technology that drove me to find a natural method of cooling off: I took the campervan out to the hills of Derbyshire where, for a few days, I lived in a field where breezes blew, trees provided shade and refreshing dew formed on the lush, green grass overnight.
The site was close to the village of Eyam, famous for its grim history. (When the Great Plague of 1665 reached Eyam, the villagers voluntarily isolated themselves from surrounding populations to minimise contagion.) While there, I visited Eyam Hall, the home of a rich family, which is now open to the public. Built six years after the plague, it is of interest for reasons other than morbidity, i.e. architectural, horticultural and historical. Sitting in the middle of the village the double-fronted manor house is isolated from others by a courtyard, outbuildings and extensive grounds. Strolling around the handsome house and beautiful-but-modest gardens caused me to reflect on social inequality and the ways in which it is manifest. Here, in a 17th century English village, rich and poor lived on the same few streets, in differing states of comfort, but with one thing shared: the unpolluted environment. How different from what was to come!
Industrialisation caused the movement of people to centres of manufacturing, where the combination of pollution and inadequate housing separated rich from poor in ways that persist to this day. Those who could afford to built their houses away from the filth, while those who could not were obliged to huddle together wherever was cheapest. Friedrich Engels, in the 1880s, was appalled by the “teeming cellars” inhabited by Manchester’s workers. He also reflected on the adage ‘out of sight, out of mind’ as applied to the physical separation of the classes, which made it less likely that empathy might play a part in stimulating compassionate social reform.
Meanwhile modern cities such as New York and Chicago were building upwards rather than outwards and those who could afford to would leave the squalor of the streets for the clean air, light and security of skyscraper apartment blocks. In Britain’s low-rise cities, residential towers gained currency post 1945, albeit translated into low-cost units for the workers and, although they provided access to cleaner air and light, they have generally been a failed experiment in social engineering and worse, cost many lives through deficient construction, unlike the more recently built ‘luxury’ apartment towers in some city centres. Meanwhile, another phenomenon has occurred: those who own valuable houses in cities are resorting to digging out their basements to increase their living space. It is, apparently, less expensive than buying land on the surface or up in the air.
As for the old advice to “buy land, they ain’t making it any more”, it no longer applies – to the rich, at least. In Dubai they are sucking up sand from the seabed and depositing it to form ‘new’ land. Then they import sand from Australia to mix the concrete to build skyscrapers, which are uninhabitable without air-con. It’s enough to make you choke on your cappuccino.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Presence of Absence?

I had arranged to stay in London for a while, to catch up with friends and relatives that I don’t see as often as I would like. As the train passed Watford, there was the customary announcement over the speakers of the imminent closure of the on-board shop. Unlike many of the announcements, this one is not spoken by a pre-recorded voice, which means that there is scope for some unscripted, human communication – entertainment even – which on this occasion was delivered by a man in laid-back Jamaican style. It went like this:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the shop will be closing in (pause) about, er, (pause) ten minutes. No, (pause) er, about five minutes (pause) or something like that. (pause) Anyway, I’m closing soon, so if you want any drinks or anything, you better be quick.” It came across as a laconic, mocking rejection of the corporate robo-speak of the Virgin Trains manufactured persona. I only wish that all those passengers insulated by earphones, listening to their own pre-recorded material, could have heard and appreciated that unique human moment in an otherwise predictably mechanical two-hour journey. Perhaps it would have made them smile too.
The time in London was packed, as intended, with socialising but I did find chinks in the schedule to indulge myself in some solitary pursuits: when people surround you, a little time to yourself is precious, to be savoured or made use of, not frittered away like an interval in the drama that is your life. It could be a restorative walk along the riverside, seeking out a coffee-bar to sit in and read the paper, perhaps with a fresh, flaky croissant, returning to the social whirl stimulated and ready to relish the company of others. One day I went to the Geffrye Museum of the Home where a succession of period room-sets illustrates the progressing fashions in British domestic interiors since the Middle Ages. Afterwards I concluded that I have missed my time and that I should have been most at home in a modernist bachelor apartment circa 1932. There I would have sat in a deep, streamlined armchair, puffing on a pipe while reading the paper and listening to a huge wooden wireless set; although I suppose that, after half an hour or so, I would have picked up the Bakelite telephone and sought the company of friends.
Another day I spent an hour (or was it two?) at the National Portrait Gallery, driven by curiosity to see how Howard Hodgkin – whose paintings appear to be entirely abstract – rendered his portraits of friends and acquaintances without resorting to the figurative method. (I was also curious to see whether my proposal to fix mirrors to the wall in the restaurant had yet been implemented – but that’s another story.)  All I knew about Hodgkin’s paintings was that they are gorgeously colourful and intriguingly abstract. Was this exhibition of his portraits, Absent Friends, some sort of artistic hoax? A re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes? However, the labelling and interpretive information provided by the curator explained that the artist sought to “evoke a human presence” rather than depict a physical likeness and, once I understood this, I had my explanation as to why the work intrigued me. (I had long ago been seduced by the colours.)
Hodgkin, apparently, worked his memories of his subjects and the places they inhabited into those portraits, thereby immortalising his experience. Most of us make do with reminiscing from time to time – perhaps at occasional gatherings, maybe after a few drinks – and when we die, so do our memories. Nevertheless, the experience sharpened my purpose and I returned to my social calendar determined to continue celebrating those who have influenced me over the years and building my store of memories, even if I shan’t be handing them on to posterity.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Read My Mind, Not My Lips

 What do chimps actually see when they look at a human face? According to recently published scientific research, the answer is they see the same thing we do. This week I read a press release in which are shown two images of the same man’s face: one is a straightforward photograph; the other is a print generated from the chimp’s brain waves. They are almost identical. The explanation of how brain waves can be tapped and extrapolated in this way was a little beyond my comprehension but assuming it’s not a hoax, the discovery could be very illuminating. Not only could it give us insight into how animals experience the world, but it could also make it possible to develop accurate mind-reading techniques – for humans as well as chimps.
Now, when you think of mind-reading you might be inclined to dwell on sinister applications, such as criminals acquiring your secret thoughts for the purpose of theft, extortion or worse. All they would have to do is kidnap you, wire your brain up to a reader and, hey presto, they have all your passwords or, more likely, the place where you wrote them down. Such a technique would be cleaner and more reliable than using violence to extract the information. The flip-side of the coin, of course, is that criminals could also be made to give up information, thereby making considerable savings within our judicial system.
Moreover, there are other, everyday useful applications to consider. Take, for example, shopping. The likes of Amazon and Google, being in the business of anticipating what we might buy, constantly collect whatever data they can in order to assemble profiles of us as consumers. They do a pretty good job of anticipating our proclivities, but their algorithms can’t quite keep up – they tend to show us ads for lawnmowers long after we have actually made the purchase. What would they give for direct access to up-to-the-minute information regarding our purchasing intentions? How long will it be before, in return for some useful freebie that soon becomes indispensible to our daily lives, they persuade us to wire ourselves up to our laptops so that they can monitor our brain waves and fulfil our unspoken desires?
Actually, I would willingly have allowed myself to be so wired in a shop the other day when, during the course of trying to choose a pair of sunglasses I became overwhelmed by the range of styles on offer. A sales assistant, sensing my distress, offered to help and, because she looked old enough to empathise and spoke with a fetching Italian accent, I felt I would be in safe hands, unlikely to walk out of the store as a victim of the latest eyewear fashion. She cut through my indecision by persuading me that a particular pair fitted well and suited me. The price-tag was hefty but there was a discount on offer and, although I noticed the little logo on the lens I planned to peel it off later. The assistant congratulated me on my choice despite the fact that, strictly speaking, it was hers, not mine. (Had my actual purchase matched what was in my mind’s eye, it would have looked different and cost less.) All of which goes to show that a skilled and experienced sales assistant, whilst not having direct access to a customer’s brain waves, may still be able to assess them intuitively. In this case, she recognised that I was fed up with the process of choosing and keen to acquire sunglasses without further ado.
Since I bought them, the weather has been cloudy and rainy. Moreover, the logo on the lens is a permanent feature and the specs remain in their box while I consider whether I have the stomach for taking them back and starting all over again. 

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Let There Be Clarity

The General Election is nigh and politicians infest the media like a plague of pesky flies, irritating me with their repetitious rhetoric. I have given up shouting at the TV and radio, it’s too stressful: instead I turn off when I hear the dreaded “let me be clear”, a phrase which seems to have been universally adopted as a prelude to their well-rehearsed question-dodging techniques, so obviously learned in media-training classes. It has become de rigueur for politicians to claim clarity while delivering obfuscation. Let’s be clear is the mantra but diversion is the real objective. Political candidates prefer to set the agenda – as in Theresa May’s obsession with Brexit “negotiations” – so as to play to their strengths or, as Thomas Pynchon put it, If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers. In our relatively free-speaking society there may be plenty of discussion and debate to help us make informed, rational choices despite the hectoring, but electing leaders is not, alas, an entirely rational process.
During these weeks, even social gatherings are best avoided if you don’t want to become embroiled in the same old arguments about how the country should be governed. Maybe that explains why I took to the cinema so many times this week. In a darkened cinema you can escape the turmoil for a while. I saw three foreign films: the Finnish The Other Side of Hope; the Iranian Inversion; and the Chinese I Am Not Madame Bovary. One thing they have in common is that they deal with universal human dilemmas, albeit from different cultural perspectives. A uniquely Finnish deadpan sense of humour banishes mawkishness from the tragic story of a refugee. Deep Iranian traditions are challenged as a single woman takes charge of her own destiny. Overbearing Chinese bureaucracy presses down on a woman wronged in matrimony. Ultimately, these three stories are social commentaries and left me pondering the comparative politics of each country in relation to our own.
Perhaps a more effective escape from current politics is through poetry. The daily routine of readings that my partner and I recently established has lately become sporadic. This I do not blame on the elections but on my own tendency to be distracted by various, sometimes fleeting, interests. In order, therefore, to re-focus, I have been following up a few suggestions made by my readers. One such is from an American friend. “Try Caedmon Records,” he said, “I used to work for them, years ago.” So it was that I came to buy, on eBay, a 1954 vinyl pressing of William Carlos Williams reading his own work. (I was also seduced by the contemporary cover-art of Bill Sokol.) My winning bid of £7.99 secured me an ex-library copy but, in addition to the P&P, there was the extra expense of buying a record player, mine having disappeared around the time of the great CD switch. However, I easily acquired a small machine, retro-styled to the late 50s, and we sat together to hear the great man recite. I have to say that, putting aside the quality of the poetry and the novelty of the experience, I was disappointed by Mr. Williams’ voice, which is unimpressively high-pitched and girlish in its timbre. Still, it is authentic and, if you listen carefully, you can hear the occasional honk of an American car-horn as it passes by the studio.
Finally, I decided to catch the first episode on TV of The Handmaid’s Tale, since I have not read the novel. It is a disturbing vision of a future totalitarian USA and, even more disturbing given some of the views expressed by the incumbent President, not many steps away from becoming reality. It scared me into thinking I had better tune back in to the electioneering and do my bit to make sure it doesn’t happen here.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Will It Ever End?

Being in Manchester this past week has meant being involved in the aftermath of last Monday’s suicide-bomber atrocity. We can only imagine the grief of those who were bereaved, or the suffering that will be endured by those who were maimed. We express our sympathy awkwardly: a public gathering with speeches and poetry; makeshift shrines made with flowers, candles and messages; a minute of silence observed in the city centre; all of this unrehearsed, impromptu and heart-felt. However, beyond our shocked reactions to the callous, cruel carnage, there remains the big question of what can be done to prevent this kind of thing happening again.
Throughout the inevitable commentary on the event there runs one particular thread: of this city standing together, of its various communities working as one to combat terrorism. However, therein lies a problem. For all the talk of pride in Manchester and its record of pioneering social equality, there is evidence that the city, like so many others, is rapidly deteriorating into a fragmented entity in which “standing together” is increasingly difficult. Housing shortages, inequalities in educational opportunities, homelessness and ghetto-isation are trends emerging here – as elsewhere – as a result of its land being treated as an asset to be traded for maximum profit, often by outsiders. Taken to its logical end – rich people living in luxurious central towers, the rest housed on cheap estates, or not housed at all – how will it be possible for a city to function as a whole, to nurture all of its citizens and to take care not to marginalise anyone to the extent that they will turn against their own?
Currently showing at the city’s public art gallery is an exhibition of photographs of Mancunians taken by Shirley Baker during the time of the post-war slum clearances. They give an overall impression of poverty and desolation, although there is a bright future in the offing in the form of hygienic, humane housing . And, despite the ruination, children are playing, apparently happy and unsupervised, on the grimy, dilapidated streets and un-cleared bomb-sites, a reflection of the spirit of community they enjoyed. Subsequently, however, that spirit was too often broken by the removal of families to housing estates and high-rise developments, the work of urban planners who, at that time, worked on utopian principles that omitted some of the binding ingredients of community, such as interaction on neighbourhood streets. (See, if you can, the documentary film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City about the woman who spearheaded a campaign in the 1950’s which thwarted plans to ruin New York neighbourhoods with ill-conceived developments including urban highways and population segregation.)
Social alienation in itself is not the root cause of an individual’s determination to kill their neighbours, but it is certainly fertile ground for the recruitment of people who might be persuaded to do so. The religious beliefs that underpin the death cults of ISIL and Al Quaeda are, to the majority of religious believers, contradictory of the idea of a deity who is wise, loving and merciful towards its diverse creations and has an interest in seeing them flourish. As the author Rebecca West once put it: If there is a God, I don’t think He would demand that anyone bow down or stand up to Him. The blame for barbarity in the name of religion lies not at the door of any god but in the hearts and minds of people. To quote another, more famous, author, Voltaire: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
The ultimate prevention of atrocities committed in the pursuit of religious fanaticism is not within the power of our armed forces, intelligence services and law-enforcement agencies but in the spread of enlightenment, knowledge and compassion delivered via communities bound together by shared interests.