Saturday, 30 April 2016

Armchair Entertainment

Caffè Nero branch number 3,423 boasts an enviable situation on a corner of St. Peter's Square. Its huge windows afford a panoramic view – perfect for people-watching and surveying the work-in-progress on the new tram station and the adjoining building. But last week they spoiled it by sticking posters in the windows to advertise latte frappe grande. Disgruntled, I broached the obvious blunder with the charming mid-European girl who appears to be in charge. She sympathised with me but said the posters were ordained by head office and she had no say in the matter.
"Perhaps you could raise them a little, out of the eyeline?" I suggested.
"I'll see what I can do," she said. She was smiling but, as my partner pointed out, that was probably just to humour me.
"It's important they get feedback," I said.

Having done my public duty, I went off to see the film The Jungle Book (in 3D) which, considering I am a fan of the 1967 version, was a risky thing to do: there was a possibility that I might end up unhappily nit-picking over comparisons with the original and whingeing about how 'they' should have left well alone. Far from being disappointed, however, I found it very enjoyable and was therefore disinclined to make critical comparisons, conscious or otherwise. I have no idea how they make the animals look so real—something called CGI?—but I am concerned about the effect this might have on small children. If they believe the animals are real, won’t they be upset when they get home and can't get the family pet to have a conversation with them?

I suppose the kids will grow up to accept that it was all a fantasy, just as they do with Santa, but what about that nonsense concerning the man-cub found and raised by wolves? Will they continue to believe that is real? The recurrence of similar stories over the years, some of which have been presented—by adults—as factual, would suggest not. It was a coincidence, but the next thing I watched was Mary Beard's Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit, an historical account, except that the beginning is predicated on wolves raising the human foundlings Romulus and Remus who, despite having no toilet training, go on to found a mighty empire. Even though formal education does present this story as a myth, it wasn't until Mary's revelation that the Latin for wolf, lupa, also translates as prostitute that a more plausible version of the twins' early upbringing dawned on me.

Actually I watched only the first ten minutes before taking against the style of presentation which I found too intrusive: it gets in the way of the real meat, the history. I switched over to watch the semi-final of Caravanner of the Year, a programme which I imagine is a source of mockery for all but those who, like me, embrace the concept of mobile living. Competing with the caravanners were a motorhomer and a campervanner (which, for the benefit of the uninitiated, are rival sub-species). Much as I despise tribalism, I could not hide my disappointment when my fellow-campervanner was knocked out.

Campervanning is a joyful experience: a feeling of freedom envelops me as soon as I get behind the wheel and head for the open road. But yesterday, stuck in grid-locked traffic just a hundred yards from my fixed residence, the very opposite feeling prevailed. It was all getting very stressful until I noticed, while inching past Caffè Nero branch 3,423, that the latte frappe grande posters had been raised up. Cheered by this small victory for common sense I determined that next time I get coffee there I will make a generous—and conspicuous—contribution to the tip cup.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Outlook Is Sunny

“On a sunny day at the start of spring, everything looks lovely” I thought, as I crossed St. Peters Square, admiring the budding trees tastefully arranged in front of the handsome buildings. This vision of perfection was short-lived, however, as my eye was drawn to the spattering of chewing-gum trodden into the newly-laid flagstones. Clearly, not everyone cares about the aesthetics of paving but still, a question remains: how come there is so much discarded gum when I never see anyone actually chewing it or spitting it out? It’s a mini-mystery. (Another thing that occurs to me about chewing-gum is that the hyphen is all that distinguishes the noun from the verb - though not in America.)

I was on my way to buy a few geraniums to replace the ones that had not survived the winter, the warm sunshine having lured me into the yard to inspect the condition of my potted plants. Geraniums were readily available at the plant stall but the lady was at a loss when I asked her for something that might thrive in a shady corner. "They all like sun at this time of year", she said. I contemplated - briefly - an imitation plant.

Two days before, and in indifferent weather conditions, I had been at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a place which is always inspiring but is better experienced on a sunny day. Unfortunate timing, perhaps, but the daffodils brightened the otherwise colourless landscape and there were indoor exhibits to enjoy as well as the sculptures exposed to the elements. Currently there are gigantic pieces by an artist known as KAWS - a name which is as memorable as his work. It seems he used the “tag” when he was making graffiti art and has stuck with it - an astute branding decision and one which the Yorkshire Sculpture Park itself might learn from. Proud though it may be of its association with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, Yorkshire, by claiming title to the Park, lumbers it with a provincial tag which does not do justice to the international reputations of the artists shown there. How about the more alluring Bretton Hall Sculpture Park? Such a name might intrigue a wider audience.

And, on the subject of intriguing names, I had also been to see a couple of films, Dheepan and Victoria, both of which had me riveted to the seat. But, if I had not seen the trailers, I might not have been tempted to buy tickets: their curiously modest titles give no hint of the drama they portray.

Anyway, with the season changing, it feels like I should prepare to spend time outdoors rather than in the cinema. Exposure to the sun is not only good for city trees and potted plants, it is also beneficial to one’s health (in moderation). In fact there is a word for it, which I came across for the first time when I was recently in Sardinia: heliotherapy. At one of the many beaches there was a notice board instructing visitors not to wind-surf and to beware of heliotherapists which, even allowing for wonky translation, seemed to embody a warning that naked, rampant therapists  - possibly from Germany - might be touting for business among the dunes. At another beach, the notice which forbade the removal of flora and fauna also urged visitors to refrain from heliotherapy because of an absence of “rescue services”. Here, I imagined, was the place where pale-skinned English tourists, mistaking over-zealous sunbathing for heliotherapy, habitually roasted their hides and had to be airlifted to hospital. My own heliotherapy is more likely to involve sitting at a pavement café, contemplating the mystery of discarded gum - and whether a sculpture might look well in that shady corner.


Saturday, 16 April 2016

From Banditry To Tourism

“There is nothing to see in Nuoro: which to tell the truth, is always a relief. Sights are an irritating bore” wrote D.H. Lawrence, after stopping there during his Sardinian excursion.* Perhaps he was suffering sightseers’ fatigue; it’s easily acquired, especially on an island with a 7,000 year history of traceable human habitation and a spectacular geological structure which has something to offer all types – mountain-lovers, beach-aficionados and gourmets alike. We’ve just spent a week there, in the company of two old friends, driving in convoy on a loosely-planned itinerary intended to accommodate the whims of four individuals. And while a week may have been the right length of time to ensure the maintenance of harmonious relations between us, it was certainly too short for anything other than a brief glimpse of what Sardinia has to offer.

The tourist season has not yet started so our progress was unencumbered by other people: hotels and restaurants were empty; trails, beaches, museums and archaeological sites were deserted. The only exception to this generality was a party of Germans we encountered early on at one of the more intact nuraghe  (a 3,000 year-old stone dwelling). Their guide told us we should wait our turn while he finished his lecture at the entrance and, although the premise for his authority was unclear, we indulged him - at least until his back was turned. Thereafter it was easy to avoid them anyway: theirs was the only coach on the island. The roads everywhere felt as though they had been laid down just for our convenience and pleasure - which may explain why any native motorist who happened to come from behind seemed palpably impatient and desperate to overtake us.

Or it may be that this is simply a local style of macho driving, born out of the tradition of banditismo which is embedded in the culture - especially of the remote inland regions. In the town of Orgosolo, for example violent vendettas and kidnappings continued into the 1960s, although nowadays tourists are encouraged to visit and gawp at the many buildings painted with murals based on themes of struggle for freedom, independence and justice for all. And at Aggius we visited the Museo del Banditismo which tells the story of the cruel and violent punishments handed out to poor peasants who would not or - more likely - could not pay taxes. The young man at the ticket desk took us for Germans. “No”, I said, “but they will probably be here soon. We’re from England.” I mentioned Manchester, expecting the usual football-related response.  “Ah,” he said “The Chemical Brothers!” But he did later admit to being a Leeds United supporter, for reasons which he failed to explain convincingly.
Some years ago I took evening classes in Italian, the legacy of which is a faltering command of a smattering of phrases, only some of which are useful: testa di cozzo (dickhead) is not one of them. One that would have been, when we ran perilously low on petrol in a remote region, is Dove si trova la statione di servizio più vicina? There, in a typically deserted hill-top village, we were lucky to encounter someone out on the street whom we could ask for help: sometimes you get even luckier and encounter an English-speaker - but not this time. Still, he was a charming, patient man who eventually understood my mime act, flagged down a passing van and persuaded the driver to lead us to salvation. The smiling van-man was only going so far in our direction so he, in turn, flagged down another driver to finish the job. We were able to fill up and carry on sight-seeing. And I’m glad to say that the phrase grazie mille was one I did recall and used abundantly that day.

Customers expected soon.
*Taken from The Rough Guide to Sardinia.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Easter Joy


Easter occurs on the Sunday following the paschal full moon, which is the full moon that falls on or after the vernal equinox. It’s not so difficult to work out, but who actually checks that their Google calendar has got it right? Many people think it’s an inconveniently moveable feast - even bishops are talking about fixing the date (it is Christianity’s prerogative to do so) - but I’m not sure it would make much difference to the nature of the beast if they did. Easter may represent a joyous celebration of the Christ’s rising or, in Pagan circles, the sap’s rising but, to me, it always seems to be tinged with desperation: I sense the stress of parents juggling their holiday entitlements to fit around variable school breaks; I sympathise with those on staycation who cross their fingers hoping for the best of the unpredictable weather; and I fear for those who travel south for the sun, nervously anticipating strikes by French ferry workers and flight controllers. This year we are in a state of enhanced desperation because of the imminent closure of yet another steel manufacturing plant and the social and economic catastrophe that will follow. The prospect of MPs being recalled to Parliament mid-jollies holds little promise of satisfaction, as they will surely not be able to agree that the only viable solution is re-nationalisation.
During this traditional week or so of stress and disruption - commonly known as a holiday - I endeavour to keep calm and carry on as if it wasn’t happening. I avoid travelling, popular attractions, religious ceremonies, chocolate excess and furry replicas of chicks - none of which, I admit, is easy if you have family obligations. But I am fortunate in being able to pursue quiet pleasures of my own choosing - things like taking a stroll between rain-showers, taking a drink during rain-showers and long lunches in quiet restaurants with friends who are similarly disposed. This week I have also spent time in the cinema, in the afternoons, when customers are thin on the ground and the seats are discounted. Usually I go to the local arthouse cinema, a place where children, although not actually banned, are never to be seen. What a pity, I thought, as the final credits rolled on Guzman’s Pearl Button, a beautifully rendered account of the brutality of Pinochet’s military dictatorship. Earlier I had heard a teacher complain that another teacher had shown pupils a film “instead of teaching them”. He seems to have missed the point that not all films are made to entertain. Some of them are based on biographies and historical themes and just might inspire children to learn more, especially those who are disinclined to read.
Not all the films I saw lived up to the promise of their reviews, of course. Like a dish of strawberries, some were tastier than others. But there was an unexpected bonus at one of the showings - a ‘short’ which, as in the old days, preceded the main ‘feature’. I anticipated perhaps a modern version of the cheesy, Technicolor travelogues they used to show while the audience settled itself but, if this one is anything to go by, a return to those good-old days is not about to happen. The film comprised artfully composed shots of a car being driven around a deserted multi-story car park. There was no story, no actors, no script and no avuncular voice-over: just an ear-splitting electronic soundtrack: and I was astonished to see that the list of credits at the end was almost as extensive as in a proper film. It must be a metaphor, I thought, for - something: it felt like desperation.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Customary Practices

I watched in amazement as a large lady, made larger by the several bags (and larger still by the two black bin-bags full of inflated balloons) she was 'carrying', squeezed herself and all her stuff into our already-packed rush-hour tube train. From where I stood the potential for a Benny Hill-style comedy sketch was obvious, but there was only po-faced disapproval among those in her immediate vicinity. For while her action was undoubtedly a triumph of determination, did it not also display a certain disregard for the comfort of her fellow passengers? There was, of course, no vocal condemnation of her apparently selfish behaviour. In fact there evolved a noticeable sympathy for her predicament when it became obvious from her embarrassed apologies that she was a foreigner and, as such, might be excused for not comprehending the local customs. Someone even offered up their seat so that the balloons might have sole occupation of the space above it.

Having received recently an invitation to a "black tie" dinner, I know that no such tolerance will be afforded me if I fail to observe the rules of engagement for the function: they are clearly prescribed by tradition and practice, especially in this case, given that the venue is Lord's Cricket Ground. I won't be able to claim cultural immunity as a foreigner. Also, I recognise that the invitation subtly embodies a challenge: to demonstrate one's English credentials in the matter of etiquette. Still, I have been well placed this past week to observe some other venerated establishments which are emblems of the English tradition and which appear also to be resistant to change.

A visit to Oxford one day took me to the Ashmolean Museum and the Bodleian Library both of which (and for all their oddly, foreign-sounding names) are revered as ancient pillars of Oxford University. Their collections are indubitably important, but I admit to spending very little time contemplating them since it was a crisp, clear, sunny day, ideal for strolling around admiring the architecture of the University's historic buildings feeling, all the while, proprietorial around the foreign tourists.

Then there was a tour of the Old Bailey, courtesy of a friend whose work there entitles him to an 'access all areas' pass. The old (1907) court building is imposing and, presumably, was designed as such to assert the authority of the judiciary. All but the most hardened of criminals would have been cowed by the architecture and, in case they were not, there was a final, symbolic flourish in 'dead man's walk', the gloomy external passageway leading to Newgate gallows. Here the condemned were obliged to walk through a series of openings in the building's buttresses, each one smaller than the last. It's no longer in use, of course, but many of the traditions of the institution have been preserved, thanks mainly to the owner of the buildings, the Corporation of London, whose vast wealth is deployed to offset the austerity of successive Governments.

But not all tradition is posh. Further down the social strata, another friend and I explored the state of some erstwhile working-class boozers on a pub-crawl along the Mile End Road. Some have been born-again in keeping with changing tastes and circumstances but, with the call to prayer from the East London Mosque echoing along the rows of oriental shop-fronts, the evening was tinged with exoticism. Mind you, this part of London preserves another sort of English tradition: that of accommodating displaced foreigners.

So, on checking the small print of my invitation to Lords, I note that, after the stipulation of 'carriages at 11.00', there is a concession to modernity: it asks whether one has any special dietary requirements. In the hope that my host is reading this, I would just like to say "Yes: a decent, traditional claret, please."