Friday, 17 March 2017

Frankenstein And The Squeaky Shoes

There is a rather good restaurant upstairs at the National Portrait Gallery. It has sophisticated food, slick service and a reasonable wine list – but the main attraction has to be its location, high above Trafalgar Square, where diners have a panoramic view of London to the south. At least, they do if they are not facing the back wall, as I was when I had lunch there last week. The restaurant has been going for many years and, during all that time, there must have been thousands of occasions when waiters have noticed the disappointment on customers’ faces as they ushered them to seats with their backs to the window. Did it never occur to the management that they could easily, and cheaply, stick mirrors onto that wall? In any case, view or no view, it is long-established practice to install mirrors in restaurants so that wall-facing diners can observe their fellows. Dining out is, after all, a form of social interaction. I pointed all this out to my companions without, I hope, labouring the point. Nevertheless, it niggled me throughout the lunch that so obvious an oversight – and one so easily remedied – should remain uncorrected.
There is a question lurking at the back of this observation: am I being too particular? Do I emphasise the negative at the expense of appreciating the positive and, if so, is this an inclination in danger of becoming an obsession? I would like to think not. After all, just yesterday, the lady behind the counter in the Spar shop complimented me on my cheery demeanour and polite consideration for her position. Mind you, the transaction had gone well: the item I wanted was in stock, there was no queue and my contactless card worked first time. Satisfaction produces good vibes. Things might have gone very differently, as indeed they did on another occasion when I was so brusque to a waiter in a cafe that my partner insisted I present my apologies, as well as a generous tip, when it came time to pay. (The waiter had tried to persuade me to try an exotic blend of tea instead of the cappuccino I wanted and was keen to get to grips with: otherwise, everything was perfect.)
I have seen two films this week, Logan and Elle, both of which have been highly praised by critics and both of which, in my experience, were disappointingly flawed. In the case of Logan, even though I’m not a particular fan of the Marvel Comics phenomenon, the fantasy sustained my interest pretty well – until the end, that is, when a huge dollop of Hollywood schmaltz spoilt the whole thing and left me wishing I hadn’t bothered. Elle, on the other hand, is so not Hollywood that the parameters of its appeal are quite different and Isabel Huppert’s performance, in itself, is a good enough reason to buy a ticket. Yet there are some unconvincing plotlines which, although temporarily sustained by the drama, do ultimately unravel, thereby spoiling the overall experience – for me, at least.
I am conscious that niggles such as these must be kept in proportion so as not to overshadow one’s enjoyment and, to this end, I try always to keep an open mind, as I did last week when we went with friends to Wilton’s Music Hall for dinner and a performance of Frankenstein. Everything was set for a good night out: great company, lovely food, an appropriately historic venue and an innovative show. But even the most positive among us could not ignore the fact that the actor playing Frankenstein had a voice that was too highly-pitched for the part and that the assistant-cum-props-person who followed him around the set was wearing a pair of distractingly squeaky shoes. And those, I’m afraid, are my abiding memories of the show.

Friday, 10 March 2017


Right now it seems that the only thing protecting the liberty of American citizens from a would-be dictator is their written constitution: maybe we should get one of those, just in case. Mrs. May – our leader by default, not choice, remember – might come across as having a fair and reasonable approach to civic governance but this has yet to be tested, especially against the wave of xenophobia and associated crop of ‘strong leaders’ sweeping through nation states around the globe. But dictatorship couldn’t happen here, could it? We have our famous ‘checks and balances’ – the Monarchy, the House of Lords, independent judiciary and police services and, last but not least, universal suffrage. Yet, despite this lauded system called democracy, what we actually have right now is a kakistocracy – rule by the worst people. I see no grounds for complacency.
How did we get into this situation? One reason could be that anyone is entitled to stand for election (a good thing) but without training or qualification for the job (a bad thing). Would it not be reasonable to expect that – as in most other professions – candidates should learn the basics before applying for the position? In the case of would-be politicians such basics should include elements of sociology, history, economics and ethics so that they might at least have some idea of which pitfalls to avoid, thus eliminating the two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach to policy-making. A recent example of politicians’ ineptitude is the case of those who thought it was a good idea to leave the EU. Playing down the socio-economic benefits in favour of an argument for sovereignty, they have now lumbered us with years of wasting our time and money on complex, protracted negotiations to leave the club, only to have to re-join it on some form of trading terms to save our economic bacon.
Here’s an example. When Britain joined the EU there was a resurgence of investment into its (by then, foreign-owned) car manufacturing industry. Unfettered cross-border access enabled the development of a complex web of transferable materials and skills: sales boomed in the absence of tariff barriers. Brexit will put paid to all that and the industry will wither. In an attempt to avert this blow to the economy the Government has already promised to protect Nissan against future tariffs and will probably be pressured into doing the same for other companies. A few days ago General Motors sold its European operations to the French car-maker PSA and the workers at GM’s UK plants now fear they will lose their jobs. They probably will. Ironically, VW recently announced that it is adopting English as its universal corporate language – Honda has already done so and, if PSA follow suit, we could at least console ourselves with the thought that, although cars may no longer carry a ‘Made in England’ stamp, they will at least be made in English. And since our reliance on the service sector will continue thus to grow, perhaps we should see this as an opportunity to expand the profitable business of teaching English to foreigners.
In the long-term, things may work out for manufacturing. Car production will decline, inevitably, because driverless vehicles, on-demand apps and an increasingly urbanised population will reduce the need for car ownership but, if the industry redirects its resources – to the development of batteries and renewable energy systems, for example – there could be a resurgence of manufacturing in the UK. However, since  Hofstadter’s Law predicts that it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law, our politicians need to get to grips with some proper forward planning for the long-term – before a ‘strong leader’ elbows them aside.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Doris Damaged My Umbrella

I see we have begun to identify individual storms, as we already do hurricanes, by giving them people’s names. It works well, especially here in Britain where we are especially inclined to converse about our weather-events: they are more memorable if they have a human identity. “You know when Eric blew in the other week? He played havoc with my roses.” It is always gratifying to be able to name and blame someone else for one’s misfortunes and this extension of the phenomenon to natural causes is amusingly human. It makes me feel better to say that Doris damaged my umbrella, despite knowing that the responsibility for its reckless deployment was mine.
It happened on the way back from the cinema where I had just seen20th Century Women in which Annette Bening plays the single mother of a teenage son (and surrogate mother to his girlfriend and a young female lodger). There’s a lot of young-person-angst in the script but it’s handled with humour, so much so that when the mother, exasperated by it all, retorts “For God’s sake, worrying about whether you’re happy is just a short cut to depression,” the audience laughed out loud. I imagined them thinking “Yeah, get a grip. Life is full of set-backs.” And how should we define happiness, anyway? Is happiness a permanent state of relative contentment or does it comprise intermittent periods of relief from misery? I think Daniel Dennett nails it when he says “the secret of happiness is to find something more important than you are and to dedicate your life to it,” though that is easier said than done.
The cinema is in an arts complex and before the movie I was drawn to a kiosk in the foyer where passers-by were invited to try a ‘virtual reality experience’ promoting a forthcoming performance. The young person in charge of the setup, sensing that I was wary of donning a blank-faced scuba-diver’s mask, gently encouraged me with phrases like “you’ll soon get used to it” and “it only lasts four minutes” so I surrendered my dignity and took the plunge. I was transported to a writer’s studio in Paris in the 1930’s with a disembodied, animated head floating in front of me delivering a monologue. It took me a while to realise that by fixing my gaze to the front I was missing stuff. You have to move your head around: turning it left and right I was able to see into the corners of the studio; tilting it up and down I could see the ceiling and, weirdly, a representation of my own hands and knees. “What did you think?” asked my facilitator at the end. I could not think of an original or incisive thing to say. “Interesting” was about it but, later, I was able to apply the experience in a very practical way. Having just acquired my first pair of varifocal specs and finding them to be disorientating, I put them away. Trying them again later, I found that, by moving my head around, I could focus on different aspects of my surroundings. It still felt a bit like VR, however: distanced from real life by an invisible shield.
A few days afterwards I found myself back at two of my old haunts – the house I had lived in but left more than 20 years ago and a pub which had been an important social hub before I ‘settled down’. My thoughts drifted back to those former times and, at first, only happiness appeared through a haze of nostalgia. But I knew this to be a misrepresentation of reality – a sort of naturally occurring VR phenomenon – and made an effort to include in my recollections those events which could not be described as happy, not all of which I could – in good conscience – avoid blame for. To Doris I owe an apology.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Hell, Hull and Halifax

From Hell, Hull and Halifax may the Good Lord deliver us!” That memorable farewell phrase employed by 16th century thieves was quoted at me just two weeks ago when I told a friend that I planned to take a day trip to Hull. “Why would you want to go there?” he asked, forgetting that “there” is the nominated City of Culture for 2017 (or he may have been simply incredulous of the nomination). The point is that Hull’s reputation has been sullied in perpetuity by the fact that it once had a notoriously nasty gaol – and a wickedly good catchline with which to advertise it: there must have been other towns with equally awful gaols at the time but who remembers them?
Hull, or King’s Town upon Hull as it was originally named in the 13th century (such was its importance as an international trading port), has seen its fortunes wax and wane over time. In recent decades the decline of its once prosperous fishing industry has been the cause of unemployment and deprivation. Civic pride was also bruised by the subsequent loss of identity and the impression of Hull as a miserable place thus perpetuated. The idea of a day-trip would not have sprung readily to my mind then. Like so many other cities, it has discovered the need to rejuvenate itself by establishing new industries for its economic base: and cultural tourism may turn out to be an important part of that. After all, history oozes from the Georgian bricks of the Old Town, as it does from the grand architecture of the late 19th century buildings sitting gracefully in the wide streets of the adjacent City Centre, where they accommodate  some of the numerous museums.
And what of Halifax? It too has impressive city-centre architecture and, most remarkably, the magnificent Piece Hall, the famed market place built in 1779 by its cloth merchants and manufacturers and now a monument to 800 years of hand-woven textile production in the area. However, the part of Halifax to which thieves referred was the public square in which was erected a gibbet, an early form of guillotine, for the purpose of beheading those who stole more than 13 pennies worth of the precious textiles produced thereabouts. I suppose clever thieves would have taken care to steal less valuable lengths of cloth but, since the gibbet was operational for more than a hundred years, it seems there were not many attentive learners. Cromwell eventually put a stop to its use, though a replica is still in situ – more a curiosity than a deterrent, I suppose. I haven’t been to Halifax lately but the Piece Hall, having undergone restoration, is soon to open as a visitor attraction containing boutiques, cafes etc. From little acorns...
Reputations are difficult to shake off: the passage of time does not necessarily erode them. Sometimes they just become entrenched in the psyche and nothing will dislodge them. Manchester, for example, is known as Rainy City despite the fact that there are seven other British cities with higher average rainfall. Some people like to believe what suits them, regardless of fact, as the recent election of Donald Trump seems to show: and a catchy slogan, such as make America great again, as has been demonstrated, only helps to reinforce their belief. I guess it’s a lazy substitute for thinking.
Where there is evidence of change, we ought to look again at our preconceptions. Hull and Halifax have changed and their reputations deserve serious re-calibration, especially given their historical importance to the commercial foundations of modern Britain. As for Hell, however, there is no evidence that it even exists, so I am quite happy to leave its dreadful reputation in the hands of the believers.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Reclaim Your Life

My document-shredder conked out the other day so I had to get a new one. Did I say “had to”? Since when did shredders become indispensable items of household equipment? It seems they have insinuated themselves into our homes and – like washing machines – become indispensable household tools. I suppose I could live without one, but the constant threat of identity theft is a powerful incentive not to: and who has the patience to tear documents into illegible fragments by hand?
Some people go to great lengths to avoid accumulating the things that define their lives so narrowly. For example, there’s the couple I saw on a TV show who emigrated from Britain to a remote Indonesian island where they bought a piece of pristine seashore and built themselves a home. They had the gumption to tailor their lifestyle from scratch – a life without document-shredders. But while they were explaining this to camera I caught a glimpse of an HP Sauce bottle glinting incongruously in the sunlight filtering through the palm trees onto their al-fresco dining table. It caused me to speculate whether they had brought it with them or bartered it at a Spar shop on a neighbouring island. Either way, it sowed a seed of doubt in my mind concerning the extent of their commitment to a radical new lifestyle.
One of my PCs had also been playing up so I took it to the shop when I went to get my new shredder. The man (never a woman, I notice) asked me to leave it with him for a while – as I had anticipated – so I took myself off for a walk. I had been watching a TED talk about walkable cities and wanted to test some of the ideas on the ground. (The main proposition is that we reclaim our streets from the tyranny of motor vehicles and tailor them instead to the requirements of pedestrians and cyclists. The benefits are undeniable: they include the encouragement of physical exercise in air which is less-polluted as a result of a reduction in the number of car journeys; a rejuvenation of street-life and consequent raised levels of sociability; a reduction of traffic-related stress and the reduction of traffic accidents. Thus, with small but significant changes to street-management systems, we improve the well-being of citizens and curb the future cost of physical and mental healthcare. It’s not as radical as moving to a tropical island but it is a step in the right direction.)
I wandered around a nearby inner-city brownfield site that is currently being developed. Some of the industrial mills have been re-purposed, providing dwellings, small-scale offices and ground-floor shops and cafes. Elsewhere new flats, houses and a school are in construction around a series of formerly industrial canal basins and a park that has been made on reclaimed wasteland. Nearby is a Metro station and several bus routes: it seemed to me to be a perfect example of the walkable theory put into practice. Just then my reverie was interrupted by the computer repairman calling to ask for my password. I hesitated: I didn’t want to offend him by refusing and I did want the PC fixed – but the state of being temporarily shredderless combined with the possibility of having my (quite weak) password compromised induced a moment of anxiety. I gave the password reluctantly and determined to change it as soon as I could.
Later, at home, with my newly passworded PC and my new shredder I felt more comfortable. But, as I reached for the small stack of discarded envelopes that had contained my birthday cards (any document with your name and address written on it should, strictly speaking, be shredded) I did feel a little wave of paranoia lapping at the shore of my logical consciousness.