Friday, 17 August 2018

Arch Politics

I took the campervan to Paul and Colin, the mechanics I have used for years: they operate from a railway arch, as do many small, useful businesses that serve inner-city residents such as me. The nation’s railway arches are public property, insofar as they are owned and operated by Network Rail, but I had learned that the leases are to be sold as a job-lot to the highest bidder. Meanwhile, existing tenants are being pressed into onerous rent rises and short-term lease renewals as part of a process designed to raise the sale value of the property portfolio. “Has this affected you?” I asked Paul (or Colin – they are twins and I still can’t tell which is which). “No,” he said, “I haven’t heard from them:” which fits with the suspicion that Network Rail is deliberately keeping its tenants in the dark so as to avoid their objections to its plan.
I went back to collect the vehicle, as arranged, only to find that it would not be ready for another week. “Why didn’t you call to let me know?” I asked. “Sorry,” said Paul-or-Colin, “Colin was in charge of the job and he’s gone on holiday.” I studied him hard for a moment, but he remained poker-faced. I let him know that I was a bit miffed because we had planned to go touring the next day. However, I soon got over it, since our diary was flexible and, in any case, the weather had turned rainy.
I made good use of the unexpected week at home. I saw two cinema documentaries – Tracking Edith, about the photographer and Soviet-era spy Edith Tudor-Hart, and Leaning into the Wind, about the work of artist Andy Goldsworthy – and an Icelandic tragic-comedy, Under the Tree. I also had two catch-up dinners with male friends, remarking that, in the old days, we would not have isolated ourselves at tables in restaurants: on the contrary, we would have been mingling in buzzing bars.
I also found time to finish reading Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness, in which he argues in favour of cultivating the “...habit of carrying only opinions for which you have strong supporting facts.” He was driven to this by analysing the responses of educated audiences to questions about world statistics. When given the choice of three possible answers, no group had any more success than chimpanzees do in random-choice tests. Horrified by this level of ignorance, he set about exploring why we are so deluded and, in the process, came up with some convincing reasons. One of them is that we tend to look at things from a single, limited perspective i.e. our own.
When I went back to collect the van, Colin (as he claimed to be) was back from his holiday. The job had been well done and, after handing over the keys, he said, “They want to put our rent up. We might have to move from here.” “Oh no!” I said. “It will probably become another Starbucks and I’ll have to travel miles to get my van fixed.” Neighbourhood gentrification has its downsides.
“Why are they selling them anyway?” he asked. I explained my take on it thus: the Government wants the assets sold to the private sector on the pretext that the money raised from the sale will be used for much-needed rail investment. The fault in this logic is that the assets already generate income, against which capital for such investment could be borrowed. Income-generating assets like this are hard to accumulate and nobody in their right mind would sell them; therefore, the buyers must be companies in which the politicians have financial interests, direct or indirect, present or future. But perhaps my conclusion is distorted by my single, limited perspective? Paul-or-Colin doesn’t think so.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Street Life

Since 2008, when the bankers sucked up all available public funds, homeless people have become a common sight on the streets of our cities. Urban tents are no longer remarkable, except for the degree of ingenuity that goes into their positioning. While I was staying in Wapping last week, there was one pitched on a quiet pedestrian walk-through, snuggled up to a wall for maximum privacy and security. I walked past it one day just as its inhabitants, a young couple, emerged. I looked the other way – I like to think it was to spare them embarrassment at their reduced circumstances but, in truth, it was also about avoiding being asked for money. Although I feel charitable towards people living on the streets, I hold firmly to the principle of not giving them cash but, instead, funding organisations that try to help them in the long term as well as the short.
I was on my way to the mini street-library – a cabinet on a pole, stocked with donated books. I was clutching Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, hoping to swap them for something I had not read. At the library was a scruffy-looking woman, one hand restraining a large dog on a leash, the other rummaging through the books. We exchanged a few awkward words and she moved over to give me access. Then, seeing I was scanning the titles, she began to recommend randomly selected books for my consideration. “Do you want to read this?” she said, holding up a dull-looking textbook. “Not really,” I replied, thanking her politely for her trouble. “What about this one? It looks good.” It was a collection of translated Lithuanian Folk Tales. “Uh, no thanks,” I said. “Have you read it?” She shook her head. I began to suspect that reading was not her motive for being there. Maybe she was a local eccentric who had appointed herself the unofficial librarian, I thought. More likely, however, taking into account the big dog, she was someone down on her luck and with a keen eye for anything on the street with a potential monetary value. She had not actually asked me for money but I began to suspect that she might if I stuck around, so I adopted my avoidance tactic and took my leave of her. In any case there were no books that had appealed to me so we both came away empty-handed – she with no donation and me with no books.
Later, I saw her again. She was at the entrance of Wapping Station, where she was trying to sell books to commuters. As I approached her, she proffered me The Outrun, inviting me to buy it so that she could get money for a hostel for the night. “I’ve read it,” I said with an ironic smile, but she evidently did not recognise me. “What about this one, then?” she said, holding up the Lithuanian Folk Tales. I shook my head and walked on. On reflection, I could have helped her out by recommending the novels I had read to her potential customers as they hurried homeward. It would have been a difficult sell but a charitable gesture towards someone in need. However, I soon persuaded myself that I should not be aiding and abetting in the sale of stolen goods – and that she would probably just buy drugs with the proceeds.
At the end of the week, I saw that the tent-dwellers had written a notice on a big piece of cardboard and propped it against the wall. It read, “To all the people that helped us with food & money we have now got somewhere to live. Thank you!” (smiley face, heart, heart, smiley face).

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Don't Talk About Brexit

At the beginning of the week, I was at the Manchester Jazz Festival, enjoying a series of (free) performances by a contingent of French groups promoted by the Association JazzĂ© CroisĂ©. They were talented performers and accomplished English-speakers, addressing their audience with wit, humour and tact, never once mentioning Brexit, though I’m sure I sensed an underlying tone of regret at our imminent departure. Next day, on a train to London I was sitting next to a couple of empty-nesters on their way to visit their offspring and we struck up amiable small talk. Since it is the accepted convention to avoid religion and politics on first acquaintance, we did just that. However, after an hour of uninteresting accounts of their favourite holiday destinations, I was almost hoping they might instead court controversy by raising the B question. But we arrived at Euston shortly afterwards and the awkward moment passed.
In London, the following night, the heatwave broke down amid thunderstorms, followed by an eclipse of the moon. Science provides explanations for such phenomena but they were, nevertheless, sufficiently spectacular for me to imagine why our uninformed ancestors believed them to be signs of the gods’ displeasure. Ten days ago, I was viewing the remains of the Roman city at Wroxeter, most of which is buried under agricultural land and which, were it not for the skill and knowledge of archaeologists, might easily be mistaken for a group of randomly abandoned foundations. I wandered the site and read the interpretive material, marvelling at how our ancient ancestors, through their own efforts, and using advanced engineering techniques, designed and built a thriving city yet still credited imagined gods for their success. Superstition trumped rationality, then as now.
Yesterday, in London, I went to explore the newly opened section of ‘pedway’, or elevated walkway, through the cluster of office buildings at London Wall. The location is at the heart of fortified, Roman Londinium and this scheme aims to do two things: link the many buildings for pedestrians, while showcasing the sorry remnants of the ancient Wall. It succeeds in both. Moreover, it extends north to the Barbican Estate and south to the Guildhall, taking in the Museum of London at the centre of the complex and thereby providing the basis for a grand day out – if you are interested in urban history. I had never before been to the Guildhall, so was surprised to find that it has an extensive collection of paintings in galleries open to the public. The architects who extended those galleries also got a surprise, when they discovered the remains of a Roman amphitheatre underneath the building. It’s not much to look at – just the outline of part of the foundations and some wooden drainage channels – but the display chamber is lavish, clever and evocative.
However, I was drawn back to modernity by a walk around the Barbican Estate, a place I do know and one where I aspire to live one day. “A concrete monstrosity,” is some people’s opinion, but I admire the rationality of the compact, densely populated development with its gardens, fountains, communal facilities etc. In short, I favour its modernist ideals of urban living. The development was conceived in the late 1950s, a time when town planners embraced a vision of moving on from class divisions, slums, and European wars – principles not dissimilar from those who conceived and founded the EU in that same decade. In both cases, however, they were swimming against the tide of irrational human behaviour.
The next day, at a family gathering, the conversation began to drift towards the topic of Brexit but fear of the quagmire swallowing up the party quickly led to a consensus to change the subject. “Don’t talk about Brexit!” we all said – though really, we know we must.    

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Collective Memory Loss

The continuing hot weather has brought with it several problems, such as bushfires, drought, sleeplessness and – for me, at least – a footwear dilemma. The ‘townie’ sandals I rely on are in need of replacement, yet retailers stock only what is currently fashionable, which boils down to a choice between slip-ons for slopping around, flip-flops for getting to the beach-bar or sturdy, Velcro-fastened, multi-coloured clod-hoppers with deep-tread rubber soles for country hiking. Where are the sleek, leather, townie styles befitting an aspiring flaneur?
It is symptomatic of the dominance of fashion and branding that some clothing traditions have become so obscure that they may now be obsolete. Where, for example, can a man get a shirt that is designed to be worn open-necked i.e. that has no collar button? Hawaii, perhaps? “Who cares?”, you say: certainly not the teenager at the bus stop wearing a black, hooded puffa jacket over a black, padded body-warmer, despite the ambient temperature of 27 degrees Celsius. However, if – as predicted – longer, hotter summers are to become the norm, we might want to reassess our wardrobes to favour comfort over fashion. If so, we could dip into our colonial history for a few pointers.
In the mid-sixties, I spent a year working as a volunteer in the Sudan, which ten years earlier had gained independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule. Before taking up my post, I was advised to visit a certain long-established London gentlemen’s outfitters that specialised in clothing for those working abroad in the colonial service. Even then, they stocked those peculiar white, pith ‘helmets’ reminiscent of British administrators in Borneo. However, my needs were less formal, and I left with a collection of loose-fitting cotton and linen garments designed, above all else, to reflect the sun, cover the skin and allow maximum circulation of air. Furthermore, when I arrived at my posting, the few remaining Brits who clung to a semblance of the old colonial lifestyle by retaining positions at the British Council, offered me advice on how to keep cool: first, get a servant to do all manual work; second, drink hot tea rather than cold beer. I have followed their advice ever since and, while it has not always been easy to hire servants, the scientific logic of ingesting hot fluids to create perspiration that in turn evaporates, causing cooling, trumps the more intuitive desire to guzzle cold beer.
Looking around me now, however, I see evidence that the body of knowledge assembled by the colonising Brits has vanished from our common memory, replaced by less practical notions based on the experience of brief holidays in the Mediterranean. People are walking the sweltering city streets in flip-flops, tight tee shirts, skinny jeans, fitted shirts etc. Some parade in varying degrees of undress, flattering or otherwise, that expose their skin to UV rays. When they stop for refreshments, they sit in sunlight and drink latte frappe or ice-cold lager. In the long run, our hot climate may be not just a fleeting novelty but a more enduring condition that will merit adoption of the old, forgotten ways.
Forgetting important stuff, however, is nothing new. I have just come back from a place in the middle of England – Wroxeter – where there are extensive remains of a Roman city and, nearby, the once-again-functioning Roman Vineyard. When the Romans decided to go back home, they took with them their administrative machinery, just as subsequent waves of colonisers have done ever since. The city disappeared over time, as did the vineyards. (Thus, the benefits of liberation are outweighed by the resulting collapse of civic order.) The Britons, left to their own devices, built no proper roads until the 18th century, which might be explained by the tribal divisions of the land. I see no excuse, however, for the fact that it was 1991 before we remembered to grow vines and make some decent wines again, a truly inexplicable lapse of our common memory.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Curb your Awfulising

During our recent trip to Dorset, we drove around Portland – that odd spur of land that dangles from the eastern end of Chesil Beach. It is the source of the famous building material, Portland stone, but we did not see any evidence of present day quarrying, just the remains of industry past. “They must have used it all up,” I said. However, I learned later – from a TV documentary – that the stone is being extracted still, and in vast quantities, from a network of underground mines. As I watched, I hoped that the presenter would raise the question of the eventual fate of Portland – would it soon be consumed completely? – but he seemed to have reached a tacit agreement with the mine manager to portray the stone as an unlimited resource.
Perhaps I worry unnecessarily about the fate of the rocky outcrop due to the historical novel I am currently reading: Barkskins describes the ravaging of North America by the early European colonists who, having stripped the Old World of its forests, proceeded to do the same to the New World. Awed by the size and fecundity of the woodlands there, they believed the resource was limitless: in any case, they were too busy reaping profits to consider the replenishment of nature’s bounty. Eventually, the notion of sustainability did take hold, with trees being planted for future harvesting, which is a comfort of sorts, but the fact that President Trump has appointed a climate change sceptic to head the Environment Protection Agency leads me back to a pessimistic prognosis. What can be done to limit the damage we are doing to nature? It is not my destiny to be a Greenpeace activist, risking life or limb out in the field of conflict – I do my bit at the recycling bins while cheering on the front-line soldiers. I may not have been able to come up with a clever idea like the people in Wyoming, who are buying up as many as they can of the limited-issue bear-hunting licences so that they can burn them, but at least I read that while drinking my takeaway coffee in a non-disposable cup.
Of course, it isn’t just the environment that concerns me: what about the general wellbeing of humanity? The abundance – or otherwise – of natural resources is just a part of the equation. Poverty, repression, ignorance, war and disease are all the enemies of humanity and they all seem to be getting worse: but are they? Statistics, surprisingly, demonstrate that they are, in fact, (literally) getting better which, to those of us who are inclined to ‘awfulise’ the situation, should be something of a revelation and a comfort. Consider the following quote: “In 1976, Mao single-handedly and dramatically changed the direction of global poverty with one simple act: he died.”  Though the statement gives no comfort to those who suffered under Mao’s tyranny, it makes the point that a proper consideration of factual data can dispel popular misconceptions about the state of the world. This proposition is the basis of Factfulness, Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World and Why Things are Better Than You Think, a book that is on top of my pile of intended reading, not least because it promises to “manage your tendency to misery”. The authors deploy data convincingly to demonstrate that even educated people can be “not only devastatingly wrong but systematically wrong” about global trends. If it lives up to its reputation for credibility, it will sit nicely with the next on the pile, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, an argument for the case that humans have a much better life than they used to.
Therefore, I end on an optimistic note, albeit with a slight caution, as expressed so succinctly by the writer E.B. White (d.1985): “I have one share in corporate Earth, and I am nervous about the management.”