Saturday, 20 October 2018

Vintage Elevation

“Like your shirt,” said my friend.
“Thanks. It’s vintage,” I replied.
“You mean, like, second-hand?” he said, whereupon I became a tad defensive, since the sub-text of “second-hand” says utilitarian at best, poverty at worst, while “vintage” aspires to be fashionable.
“Well, pre-owned doesn’t mean pre-worn, necessarily,” I said, splitting the hair in an attempt to distance myself from the implication of penury (though the shirt in question had obviously been through the laundry more than a few times).
I had indeed bought it in a shop that offers ‘vintage’ clothing as an alternative to the contemporary styles that are available elsewhere: but it was not cheap (ergo, I am not impoverished. Such places – there is a cluster of them in the Northern Quarter – trade on the premise of fashionability and feel entitled to price their offering at a level that is reassuringly expensive. It’s an old trick. Five minutes away, in a less rarefied part of town, there is a Thrift Shop, where re-cycled clothing is offered, also in a stylish and considered display, but at prices a fraction of those in the Northern Quarter. It is, in effect, the Primark of the used-clothing retail sector. I also go there and, sometimes, spot hipsters skulking, trying to look cool while hunting for bargains away from their home turf. Fashion and style are as applicable at the bottom end of the clothing market as they are at the top.
The branding of goods as vintage implies enhanced value and some, as they get older, may even be classified as antique, thereby accruing even more value. In the end, however, there is an argument for the eco-morality of recycling that can be used against those inclined to snobbish disdain for or plain indifference to the value of second-hand stuff. This applies also to book-exchanges, which provide opportunities for free access to text. I admit that authors might take issue with a system that deprives them of income but, like musicians whose creations are available cheaply or free of charge online, and clothing workers who become redundant because of recycling, they have to face the reality of the post-industrial economy. There is a world-wide trend towards consuming less stuff and more services, despite which (and contrary to common perception) the populations of all nations are becoming wealthier.*
The penchant for vintage, by the way, is not just for clothes. I just saw the film Columbus, a pensive, wistful account of one person’s repressed aspirations set alongside her enchantment with the several classic examples of Modernist architecture that happen to exist in her home town, Columbus, Ohio. The camera dwells lovingly on these 1950s buildings but, when the film had drifted inconclusively into its final shot, the chap next to me stood and said “Is that it? Do you think we could get our money back?” Perhaps he would have been more comfortable watching First Man, the biopic about Neil Armstrong. At least he would have known for sure that the story had a decisive, nay, predictable ending. He would also have had the visual bonus of all that convincing footage of 1960s rocket technology in all its bone-shaking, nuts-and-bolts, seat-of-the-pants, vintage glory.
The term 'vintage' comes to us via the wine-making tradition but has proven useful as a catchall for anything that can be located in an identifiable period of time. Well-made wines of a certain harvest will improve with the passage of time. The same can be said of non-organic goods, the best of which resist wear-and-tear, become revered as classics and preserved in museums. Likewise, the best artistic creations will endure. We mere humans, however, must face a different trajectory, a fact that was brought home to me this week, as I visited the dentist, the optician and, along with others of my ‘vintage’, the surgery for the annual ‘flu jab.
*Factfulness, Hans Rosling. Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker


Saturday, 13 October 2018

Enlightened Behaviour

It came as a surprise to me to discover this week that knitted, multi-coloured, stripy socks, with the big toe separated from the rest so that they could be worn with sandals, were invented by the Ancient Egyptians. It is not clear, however, whether those who wore them then were associated, as they are nowadays, with fashion dyslexia, disparaged alternative lifestyle practices, or both – despite the rational case for this perfectly practical and hygienic mode of footwear. Later, while walking in town, I looked for practitioners of the socks-and-sandals combo so that I could nod my head at them in silent approval. There were none.
There were, however, plenty of Jehovah’s Witnesses proselytising in their usual manner, silently proffering leaflets to passers-by: and pass-by is just what I did. Though I am sometimes tempted to stop and challenge their dogma, past experience has proven that it is futile. They believe absolutely in their particular interpretation of god-given ancient scriptures. No discussion is possible from any other starting point. The Enlightenment passed them by – as it did the Mormons, a Christian sect founded on the ‘divine revelations’ experienced by the 17 year-old Joseph Smith (an acknowledged drinker) in 1823. A brief analysis of the account of his mystic experience would lead a rational thinker to the conclusion that the boy was sleep-deprived and delusional, or high on drink and/or drugs, or that he was a liar and a con-man. One can only despair at the fact that, because of the propensity for humans to think and behave irrationally, the Enlightenment has made limited progress since it kicked off in the 17th century. Jehova’s Witnesses still believe the end of the world is nigh, despite several previously predicted deadlines having passed without incident.
Now, however, there is an alternative warning of Armageddon – not promulgated by prophets, but credibly forecast by scientifically collated data. The U.N. has announced that global warming of the order of 2C will certainly cause the end of the world as it is currently constituted. No vengeful god is responsible. No righteous peoples will be spared. No prayers will affect the outcome. The only way out of the dilemma is for the human population to moderate the economic activities that are at the root of this potential calamity. Disaster could be averted by reasoned and bold action, but time is of the essence. Governments must act, and act now! The problem is, however, that they will not. Governments just aren’t very proactive. Leaving aside those run by tyrants or infested with self-enriching, corrupt politicians, even the cleanest, most democratically elected governments tend to champion policies promoted by lobby groups and act on fears of losing the next election. Momentum for change must come, as it always has, from individuals acting and influencing others, until their number reaches critical mass and obliges politicians to follow suit.
So the onus is on each and every one of us to take action to reduce our carbon footprints. This is a difficult sell, since we who live in rich countries have become accustomed to the throwaway society, the over-consumption of goods and the luxury of placing convenience over necessity – all things to which populations in poorer countries aspire. Still, it is the sum of billions of small things that can make a difference. We don’t all have to become vegetarian but we do all have to eat less meat. How hard is that? My guess is that it becomes easier as awareness and practice spread, establishing new behavioural mores. Sooner or later, neighbours will frown on your eco-unfriendly car(s), friends will encourage you to switch to green energy and avoid profligate consumption. Eventually, those alternative lifestyle pioneers may be awarded belated recognition for their commitment to change. By their socks-and-sandals shall ye know the true saviours of mankind.

Saturday, 6 October 2018


This week I saw two films and read one novel, and the one thing they had in common was that a main character was killed off towards the end of the plot – a device often used by writers wishing bring things to a convenient conclusion. Death, however, though it may bring an end to an episode, does not terminate the whole story (hence umpteen series of Game of Thrones or whatever). The ramifications of our actions are interwoven into others’ stories long after we are gone. Our short lives are mere episodes in a continuous drama and, if we cannot always relate these to past events, it may be because our memories fail us. However, there is now a handy device that overcomes memory-loss: the smartphone.
It was by chance that I discovered, in the menu of the Google Maps app, a feature called Timeline which, if you allow it, will track your movements. And it is very precise. It shows not only a map of your itinerary but also a list of times, routes travelled, mode of transport and places visited. Last Wednesday, for example, I walked from home for three minutes to Marsters Coffee Shop (there is even a photo of the place). My subsequent movements are similarly recorded in detail and, although I later went “missing in the Gay Village” for 15 minutes (of which I have no memory), I am nevertheless impressed by the technology. Had you asked me where I was and what I was doing last Wednesday at 15.23, I would have had no idea – but Google probably would.
Except that I have noticed an odd discrepancy: on Monday I was simultaneously at home and in Rochdale. It took me quite a while to work out how this was possible but, by a process of deduction, I fathomed it, eventually. I was indeed at home; it was my partner who went to Rochdale. The explanation is that we share a Google account (so that we can both access mutual contacts) and we are both signed into it on our phones. Our timelines, therefore, merge into one, despite there being two devices. All of which is perfect for the happy, devoted couple living mutually supportive lives, though not so for those at the opposite end of the relationship spectrum.
I am sure that some readers will regard this ability of Google to track our movements as a sinister – possibly evil – power, but you do not have to sign up for it: there are other options, such as asking strangers for directions, consulting out-dated paper maps, and using public telephone booths (I think they still exist). Otherwise, there are good things that can come from the confluence of technology and personal data. I have heard the argument for Google to make available ‘safe’ pedestrian routes, for example. This could be done by plotting a course, let’s say, that takes you to your destination avoiding streets that are poorly lit and/or unpopulated by other walkers. Admittedly, this service would require massive data input and computation but this is what they do. The real problems would be resolving the duality problem and persuading everyone to enable GPS on their devices.
There is another possible use for the technology: ‘Group Timelining’ could be employed by writers to experiment with the way they tell stories. Plots of extreme complexity could be auto-generated by persuading each person in the writers’ interactive circles of friends and relatives to sign into the same Google account on a phone that they are given. After carrying the phone constantly for a given period of time, the ‘characters’ can then decide when and where to turn it off, thus providing a ‘death’ for the writers to deal with and thereby preventing them from choosing a convenient conclusion. As in life, the story goes on.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

A Tale of Two Peaks

We caught an early flight to Geneva last Saturday, which meant getting a taxi to the airport at four thirty in the morning. We booked in advance so as to ensure a few hours anxiety-free sleep, though we need not have bothered, since the streets around us were thronged with young revellers making their way home and hundreds of taxis cruising for fares: nor had I slept well.
We were visiting friends who had moved there from London – we hadn’t seen them since their leaving party a year ago but it looks as if they have settled well into a city that has first-class civic amenities, good schools for their kids and is a perfect location for outdoor activities. They welcomed us warmly and, since we were first-timers, introduced us to the delights of the Saturday market in Carouge, a degustation at a delightfully quaint winery just out of town and a picnic on a hillside with a view of the Alps jutting into a clear blue sky – (except for Mont Blanc, the top of which was obscured by a cloud that resembled Trump’s coiffure). The picnic was actually in France, the border of which closely surrounds the city in a way that could feel threatening if international relations were to turn ugly. That seems unlikely, however, given that everyone we encountered spoke French and that the Swiss legendarily maintain a high degree of military preparedness. (Our friends’ house – along with others of the period – incorporates a mandatory nuclear-bomb-proof bunker in the basement.)
The day after our return, I threw my hiking boots into the campervan and drove to Snowdonia for a rendezvous with a couple of very old but distant friends. We had arranged to ascend Snowdon – so long as the weather permitted – and the forecast was excellent. All the way there, the sun shone: on the suburbs of Manchester; on the motorway to North Wales; on the lush, rolling countryside; and on the mountains themselves, as they loomed enticingly into view. Snowdon stood proud, without a crown of cloud. At the campsite, my friends erected their tent and we went off to the pub for some supper, having decided our route for the next day.
The night, however, grew wet and windy and, when we met at breakfast, my friends were bleary from lack of sleep. All around us a thick mist swirled and the wind drove gusts of rain into the sodden grass. Somewhat disappointed, we discussed the situation and decided that an alternative, low-level walk might be best – though it took some time to convince ourselves that we were not wimps but sensible, experienced hikers who knew when to back off. What would be the point of scrambling up 1,000 metres of slippery slate when there would be no view from the top? Our dilemma thus resolved, we celebrated with coffee at the Caffi Colwyn in Beddgelert, our starting point.
The change of plan actually brought with it a certain benefit: the broad tracks through woods, hills and valleys are more conducive to conversation than the narrow, steep, mountain paths that oblige single file and permit only breathless exchanges. We had, therefore, plenty of opportunities to reminisce, exchange news, debate obscure points of interest and exchange gentle, humorous banter – a mellow progress through a dank but beautiful landscape.
After tea and scones back at Caffi Colwyn, we said goodbye, with a promise to meet again in Spring. I stayed that night at the campsite so as to explore the area next day. I slept well and awoke to find the mist had cleared and the sky was blue. Snowdon, with a fluffy white quiff on top, reminded me of Mont Blanc. People around me were putting on their boots, eagerly. I almost did likewise but felt it would have been disloyal to my mates to summit without them. Besides, where’s the fun in solitary hiking?

Llyn Gwynant campsite on a fine day.

Friday, 21 September 2018

A Haven for Eccentrics

At the head of the queue in the butcher’s shop was a very old, shabbily-dressed woman with out-of control hair, fierce eyes, a strong voice, confident manner and a seemingly familiar relationship with the man behind the counter. She pretended to bully him and he pretended to be intimidated by her, each of them turning occasionally to wink at the rest of us. When it came time to pay, she threatened that she would brook no increase on last week’s prices, offered up her purse, instructed him to take what was due and to place the change in the appropriate compartments, all of which he did with an obedient flourish. She left the shop, smiling triumphantly. I would have applauded her had I not been inhibited by the fact that I am a stranger in this, the Lincolnshire village of Ruskington, which is, according to my brother-in-law who lives here, the largest village in the land (though a cursory online enquiry lends no evidence to this: for a start, there is no universally agreed definition of “village”). From the perspective of a city-dweller such as me, however, the point is academic: it feels small anyway.
My father was stationed at various RAF bases around here when I was a child, so my extended stay in Ruskington is beginning to feel like a homecoming of sorts. Driving through nearby RAF Cranwell, I stopped for a walk around the place where I first went to school. Our house is still there, as is the shop across the green, but the school – a collection of wartime wooden huts – has disappeared. I walked up and down the B1429, which runs through the military base, identifying some familiar landmarks, but my progress was thwarted by a proliferation of fences and KEEP OUT notices that I certainly don’t recall. It being Saturday, there was no-one around (it worries me that our armed forces take weekends off), so I stepped off the public highway and onto a patch of grass in order to inspect the information plaque under a permanently displayed aircraft (the splendid Hawker Siddeley Dominie). As I was reading, a security guard arrived out of nowhere. He confronted me politely, but he was well-armed, so I did not protest that the plaque is unreadable from the pavement. Instead, I consoled myself with the fact that somebody, at least, was on duty.
Later, I walked elsewhere, though the flat landscape of Lincolnshire, ideal for farming and flying, is not so attractive for recreational hiking. Perhaps that is why the local authority has devised a trail running from Lincoln to Sleaford called Spires and Steeples – the idea being to provide hikers with something of interest to engage their minds as they tramp along the edge of one field after another. The path is thoughtfully furnished with signposts which, though appreciated, are an unnecessary expense, since the next spire or steeple along the way is clearly visible at all times. I have not had an opportunity to walk the path to Sleaford, but did drive there one day. Unsurprisingly, it is not quite the metropolis it seemed to me a child. It is also – again unsurprisingly – run down. Nevertheless it does have aspirations to reassert itself post its market-town-heyday: it boasts The Hub, a new building that houses the National Centre for Craft and Design, set pleasantly among riverside boutiques and residences. There, the thought of coming back to live in Lincolnshire floated by me on a wave of nostalgia and other considerations: the easy pace of life, ready availability of fresh produce and low property prices. Okay, I might eventually develop eccentric tendencies but there’s a lot to be said for having friendly relationships with your local shopkeepers. And who knows? The guards might one day be persuaded to let me stroke the Dominie.