Saturday, 31 December 2011

Northern Wonders

My life began in the Mediterranean, despite which I am drawn inexorably northward. Over time I have acquired a fondness for the landscape and culture of northern Britain - and a corresponding aversion to those of the Home Counties. Fortunately my partner shares some of my preferences and so joined me on a recent northern excursion which included hikes along part of Hadrian’s Wall and the Northumberland coast, a visit to the mysterious Rosslyn Chapel and a peek at the newly refurbished Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

Hadrian’s Wall (true to the fate of all such artificial barriers to human migration) was ultimately ineffective and, as soon as the Romans went home, it became a source of free, ready-cut stone for local building projects. In this respect at least the wall brought some benefit to the locals – unlike its modern-day equivalents made of massive concrete slabs. What remains of the ancient wall, however, certainly demonstrates the Romans’ remarkable engineering skills and their appetite for grand projects. It is also testament to their human endurance for, when we were there, in that remote and hilly place, the weather was so hostile that it was difficult to imagine how they could have accomplished such a work without the benefit of Goretex.

The outdoor-clothing industry would have us believe that there is no such thing as bad weather so long as you have appropriate clothing - but the next hike, along the coast, called this principle into question: the prevailing gale-force wind battered us into submission and, within a few hours, we were obliged to bring forward the ‘indoor’ section of our tour.

Rosslyn Chapel, a symphony of carved sandstone, was built about 1000 years after the Romans had left Britain and about 600 years before the next significant event – the invention of waterproof, windproof, breatheable, hi-tech fabrics. Its myriad carvings are not only extraordinary but also fascinating because the meaning and significance of many of them is now obscure. Were it otherwise the chapel would hold less mystery, the legends that surround it would not exist and Dan Brown would have had to find some other setting for the denouement of The da Vinci Code.

Whereas the interior decoration of Rosslyn Chapel was accomplished entirely by stone-carving, that of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery was achieved by the application of colourful murals and skilfully crafted woodwork, rendering the interior itself a thing of wonder - especially if compared with the stark, neutral interiors of many contemporary exhibition spaces. This building holds no mystery; it is a hall of fame containing a well-documented, pictorial record of those who feature in the nation’s history and, traditionally, the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful who could afford to commission portrait painters. But egalitarianism and photography have combined to level the ground so that, on these walls, a much broader section of society is represented and the historical record is more comprehensive.

But early Scottish history had not the benefit of contemporary painters and so has been visualised here in retrospectively painted murals. One of these represents St. Columba brandishing a wooden cross as he preaches to a group of Pictish warriors who are paying (incredibly) polite attention to his message.  Others depict imagined scenes of battle in which muscular natives repel fearsome invaders. They are romantic interpretations and I am inclined to question their authenticity, especially given the inadequacy of the characters’ clothing, which appears to have been modelled on the Mediterranean style circa 2000 B.C. – and there’s not a thread of tartan to be seen!

Driving back (without let or hindrance) across the border and through the remains of Hadrian’s Wall I pondered the fact that people nowadays may well be more suitably dressed for the weather but many are nevertheless still employed in the futile building of walls.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Little Worlds

There is a small scrap of grassy land near the back entrance of the Town Hall. I never really noticed it before because it is sunken and hidden by bushes but, when the ‘Occupy’ protesters set up camp there, I discovered that it has an official name - the Peace Garden.
“So why exactly are you here?” I asked one of the more approachable campers. “It’s a public space so we have every right to be here” he answered. “Yes but you’ve now made it into a private space. You’ve appropriated it for yourselves” I said. I considered this to be a valid point but he sidestepped this argument by inviting me to come and join them. A lively discussion ensued, during which he revealed that he had no home of his own and had been consigned to a hostel full of thieving smackheads and so he preferred to live in a tent in the Peace Garden. He then started to question me about my circumstances: did I have a home, an income etc? After a while we parted - on friendly terms, but not as friends: our worlds, regardless of their geographical proximity, were too far apart for us to mingle with social ease.
A few streets further on and now feeling in the mood for random inter-planetary dialogue, I bumped into a lone canvasser who urged me to take one of his leaflets.  “Thanks” I said, sensing proselytising, “but if it’s about religion I have no interest”. “No” he said, “it’s not about religion, it’s about Jesus and salvation”. I took the leaflet anyway but decided, on this occasion, not to pursue an argument. Instead I steered a course well out of his orbit.
During that brief time, within those few streets, my little world had collided with two other little worlds - each with its own set of values, priorities and boundaries. How many more little worlds must there be out there?
I travelled somewhat farther to encounter the next one, driving through the rush hour one dark, rainy evening to get to the Lake District. The haloed lights of the traffic advancing and receding in the blackness lent the feel of a Star Trek galactic mission to my journey and, when I turned off the main road onto the last few, unlit, lonely miles of winding, single-track up the valley to Wasdale Head, there was a sensation of being drawn into a black hole. But gradually the rain ceased and the cloud parted to reveal a full moon which, in turn, illuminated snow-dusted mountains looming all around - as if they had been lying in wait - their presence betrayed at last by the silver light. I stepped out of my spaceship at the head of the valley where, but for the lazy drift of the dispersing clouds, the motionless mountains bathed in eerie light looked like an artfully painted theatrical backdrop. Had I really landed on another planet this time?
In the morning the mountains were still beautiful but the illusion of other-worldliness had vanished with the moonlight. I was back on more familiar territory and set out to locate a farm where cheese is made and sold. I found it tucked away at the end of a gated track. My approach was undetected until I knocked at a door which was opened by a sixty-something man in corduroy trousers and a nice cardigan. He seemed surprised that I wanted to buy cheese but recovered his composure as he led me to the outhouse where his wife was busy cutting it into portions and sealing it in wax. This pair of mild-mannered, softly-spoken southerners might have been retired teachers who had decided on a change of lifestyle. The cheese was weighed, packaged and paid for while we tried some awkward conversation but I felt they were relieved when I said goodbye and left them to their solitude. Another collision of tiny worlds, another awkward moment: it’s not so easy communicating with beings from another planet.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Stranded with an mp3 Player

I had just learned something that I should have known but didn’t: Rod Stewart’s monster hit ‘Maggie May’ has no chorus! So what? Well, this is extraordinary because, according to the experts, a pop-song without a chorus is a certain flop. So how could it have been so successful? I wanted to hear it again to assess its magical qualities (and, while I was at it, find out whether John Peel really had played the famous mandolin solo when the band appeared on Top of the Pops back in 1971, or whether I had been a little ‘confused’ at the time). Not possessing a copy of the record, I turned to the internet for fulfilment; which is where my trials began.
I decided to get myself a music-streaming account so that I could access “all of the music, all of the time”. Setting up an internet account involves a security procedure which requires answers to questions such as: What was the name of the first street you lived in? What was your first school? What was your first pet’s name? Producing answers is straightforward provided that you lived in a house, on a street, went to school and had a pet. Whoever compiled these questions obviously had a ‘normal’ upbringing and assumes that everyone else did.
But it’s not an insurmountable problem for the determined applicant whose early lifestyle was a bit ‘alternative’: these facts can be invented and noted down for later reference. What I found more difficult was the other set of questions: What is your favourite film/book/song? Suddenly I was expected to make instant value judgments on vast tracts of cultural output. Not so fast! First of all I needed to categorise everything into genres - possibly even sub-genres - and, especially in the case of songs, factor-in time, place and mood. Besides, how is it possible to have favourites before having seen all the films, read all the books and heard all the songs?
Pedantry of this order would make me an awkward guest for Desert Island Discs – a programme which I long to be invited on. I guess I would need about six months notice to come up with my shortlist, even though I have already given it considerable thought in anticipation of my invitation. I will divide my selection into two categories: nostalgic and inspirational. The nostalgic would indulge my need to reflect on the past and the inspirational would provide hope for an otherwise bleak outlook.
But it could be some time before my invitation arrives so meanwhile, back on the website, I came across a major obstacle: the sound is delivered in mp3 format - which is disappointing; all of the music, all of the time, but compressed, distorted and with some frequencies missing. I spent an hour or two reading on-line forums about the great ‘bit-rate’ controversy and was comforted to discover that there are people who are even more particular than I but, as one of them concluded, “There is no way out so get your head around the message and stop fretting about the medium”.
In the case of ‘Maggie May’ he may have a point. Researchers claim that the drummer’s bass pedal was not working properly during the recording session, yet this had no perceived effect on the sound quality and certainly did not diminish its popularity then or since. Nevertheless, when I am asked by the presenter of Desert Island Discs which luxury I would like to take with me I will ask for a super hi-fi system.
But I suppose that, by then, it will have become ‘Desert Island mp3s’ and I will have to make do with 260 kbit/s sound-quality. At least Maggie May will sound OK and I will have plenty of time to rake through my memory for evidence of John Peel’s mandolin solo.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Clock This!

I have often wondered why the City of Manchester labelled its principal civic building the Town Hall. The only convincing explanation I have heard is that, by so doing, it kept the peace between the supporters of its two main football teams, one of which (for the uninitiated) is called Manchester City F.C. In any case it’s a remarkable building and I recently joined a guided tour of its huge clock tower. I was curious about why so much effort and expense had gone into building a giant clock.

A dozen of us gathered in the lobby for the inevitable Health & Safety briefing and ritual signing of the disclaimer form. We were a group of strangers, mostly middle- aged and with the earnest look of amateur historians, except for a mother and her teenage daughter who looked as though they had strayed too far from the department store on Deansgate. Perhaps they had won their tickets in a raffle. Nevertheless, undeterred by our guide’s warning of hundreds of steps to climb and no toilet or retail opportunities, they followed as he led the way and told the story.

The building was completed in 1887 when Manchester had become the world’s first industrial city and its inhabitants were wage-slaves whose working lives were strictly ruled by the routine of clocking in and out of the mills. Despite industry’s reliance on measured time, it was apparent that the wage-slaves were too poor to own clocks and watches so the City obliged by building this giant, four-faced clock located 250 feet above Albert Square. In case anyone should miss it (visibility was poor in those days of coal-fired mill engines) they endowed it with an eight-ton bronze bell to strike the hours and a set of smaller bells to chime the halves and quarters.

Half a mile away is the original passenger rail station which, when it opened in 1832, highlighted the fact that there was no standard time in England - which made it impossible to compile train timetables. So there was an international convention to standardise time and Greenwich (after a fight with the French) was appointed as the prime meridian. Our clock was originally regulated by telegraph signal from Greenwich but now has a digital reference from the International Earth Rotation and Reference Service whose boss has the grand title of Director of Time.

By now we had reached the open gallery housing the main bell and were looking down on the city and its historic sites. The mother and daughter spotted the department store and began to look agitated but our guide had more to tell us concerning the architecture:
Not only the clock tower but the entire Town Hall building is, and was intended to be, a lavish statement of power and wealth. Everywhere the details of its design and decoration symbolise the ethics, religion and perceived history of the period. And, in ultimate praise of mammon, the very tip of the Gothic tower was topped with a golden sculpture representing the cotton boll – the blessed source of all Manchester’s wealth.

When the glorious building was complete Queen Victoria was invited to come and cut the ribbon. She however, sulking because of the slights she had been dealt by the politically radical inhabitants of Manchester (its mayor in particular), sent a minion in her stead. Rumour has it that, in retaliation for the snub, a plan was conceived to replace the golden boll with two fingers in a V sign. But for the fact that such an act of treason could have resulted in incarceration in that other Tower (of London), we might have inherited a unique monument to political freedom rather than one to fleeting prosperity – on top of a clock that no one really needs anymore.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Adnamsville - A Heritage Tale

I once read a visionary novel set in a future England which, having been taken over by the Chinese, had become a gigantic, themed holiday resort. All those cultural quirks deemed (by the Chinese) to be quintessentially English were nurtured so that visitors would get an ‘authentic’ experience. There was even a dispensation which allowed the proscribed English language to be used - in limited situations. I am reminded of this story when I travel around the country and see the road-signs for heritage trails, historic towns, country parks, National Trust sites, English Heritage sites, wildlife parks, industrial museums, steam railways, gardens, nature trails, forest walks and plain, old-fashioned commercial theme parks.

Last weekend I pitched up at a premier English-themed experience – the coastal town of Southwold in Suffolk. It once was a significant port but the build-up of a shingle bar across the harbour entrance put paid to that. For years it slumbered as a small fishing community until it was discovered by well-to-do Londoners sometime after they acquired motor-cars and a penchant for weekend retreats. Nowadays the wily fisher-folk of Southwold (and the surrounding villages) make their living by catering for the nostalgic fantasies of city-folk. They have distilled the essence of seaside resort and bottled it for consumption by customers whose expectations they understand all too well.

The transformation of the town is not a unique phenomenon but the business model is interesting in that the main perpetrator is the local brewer, Adnams, whose beer is excellent and whose grasp of concept branding is masterly. Many towns in England used to have breweries located in their centres but most have sold the land for profit and moved to industrial parks. Among those who remain is Adnams, which owns all the pubs in town and has a very strong grip on the Southwold ‘look’ – all stripped-down interiors in stone-washed pastel colours. Its pubs have been meticulously de-localised and their gastronomic offerings graded from simple and cheap to over-complicated and London-priced.

Impressive as it is, there are one or two flaws in the business model: while Adnams’ employees are all trained to be nice to the tourists, the same cannot be said for some of the other locals. One of them, complaining that I had parked on the road in front of his house, argued that as a local ratepayer he had preference over visitors – by which logic he would have trouble parking outside his own borough (should he ever care to leave his personal Utopia). Another resident advised me not to buy newspapers in the new Tesco shop for fear of destroying the trade of local independents – most of which closed promptly at five o’clock on Saturday and remained closed until Monday morning having learned little from the brewery’s commercial success.

But perhaps curmudgeonly behaviour towards tourists is all part of the charm of the English theme? If so, let’s hope that the Chinese, when they do take over, will appreciate such irony. At the end of 2010, a survey concluded that China had spent £30 billion on creating 2,500 theme parks of its own. Compared with that sort of investment I expect they will be able to acquire Adnamsville for a snip. It’s a tidy asset which comes complete with unique branding, traditional ale, a cast of colourful local ‘characters’ and a loyal customer base. In short, it’s a nice little earner just the way it is.  

Saturday, 19 November 2011

A Postmodern Experience

If I had to choose where to spend the last day of my life I might (depending on my mood at the time) opt for the Victoria & Albert Museum. It contains such a bountiful stash of the artefacts that mankind has contrived to clutter its life with that I could spend my last hours in contemplation of all the artistry, imagination, ingenuity and craftsmanship that have been dedicated to the enhancement of our material comfort. And I would lunch lavishly in the richly ornamented cafe where I would try to reconcile all this extravagance with the teaching from Ecclesiastes that adorns the frieze: “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour”.
The V&A is currently hosting the exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 and if, like me, you thought that Postmodernism was all about 1980’s ‘pastiche’ buildings with dodgy decorative features and poorly-executed detailing I can report that those are just a few of the more visible products of the movement. Postmodernism was, more generally, a revolt, by designers, against the prevailing trend of the time - Modernism. Designers started to question the validity of the Modernist design principle – the constant refinement of form to follow function – and to break free from its constraints. Robert Venturi, an architect at the vanguard of the movement, railed against this tyranny, advocating that design should instead prioritise “messy vitality over obvious unity”.
The movement gathered pace quickly and went on to touch most of our lives as it spilled over into popular music (post-punk and new wave), graphics (magazines, posters and record covers), consumer products (furniture and home-wares) and even film (Blade Runner). Sometimes it worked brilliantly, grabbing our attention and startling us into fresh viewpoints: check your record collection for those sleeves from Factory Records. Other times it served novelty at the expense of purpose: check your cupboard for that dribbling teapot in the shape of a Mayan temple.
Designers have always plundered the past for ideas but Postmodernism’s determined adoption of bricolage (or pick ‘n mix) became one of its distinctive hallmarks. The rejection of conventional ideas of ‘taste’ in favour of an apparently random combination of styles and materials flew in the face of accepted norms. The intention, again to quote Venturi, was to include “both/and rather than either/or”. The results of this experimentation were certainly provocative.
I manoeuvred my way around a gaggle of eager, note-taking students and reflected that they had been born at just the time when Postmodernism, according to this exhibition, expired leaving its flotsam and jetsam scattered over their cultural landscape. What would they make of its legacy as they pursued their own design careers? They were currently fascinated by an uncomfortable-looking chair made of transparent acrylic encasing imitation red roses. “Are they real?” said one. “Lush” wowed another.
Around the next corner I came across a product of the offshoot Adhocist movement: a chair made from whatever materials had come to hand. It reminded me of a TV programme I sometimes see at the gym - Scrapyard Challenge - in which teams of blokes with blokish names compete to design and make mechanical devices using only what is available in the yard. I bet they don’t realise they are part of an international design movement.
With time to spare I progressed quickly through the shop (where I heard a man say to his wife “It’s only more clutter for the house”) and made my way to a gallery showing late 20th century design. It was there that I fell in love: the object of my infatuation was a Pye Cambridge radio, model 1108, vintage 1966, designed by Robin Day, in very fine condition for her age and a perfect example of form following function.
Later that day: ebay is full of old radios but there is only one model 1108 – and that was sold back in July.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Who Chose This?

I am partial to contemporary Scandinavian jazz and, whenever I get the chance, will encourage others to listen to it. I have learnt that it’s not a good idea to trap someone in a chair and play them your choice of CD but it is sometimes possible to get a positive response from a little fortuitously-timed background music. I was building on one such success when I persuaded a trio of friends to come with me to a live gig by a Norwegian trumpeter. I was sure they would love the cool, lingering tones, the finely judged chordal progressions and the soaring harmony of the melodies that distinguish his style.

Unfortunately the artist had undergone a musical transformation since I had last heard him play and his new style was quite different. Improvisational, raw and un-melodic, it was a good example of what I call ‘difficult’ jazz: music which only the most knowledgeable and devoted aficionado would appreciate. To our ears the random structure of the compositions was harsh and generally irritating – and we couldn’t even talk through it because it was so loud. It was a disappointing experience for us all and I suspect that any future recommendations of mine will be treated with suspicion. These days I am often to be found solo at jazz gigs, picking my way through its diversity, with only my own disappointments to deal with.

I am also partial to French red wine which, like jazz, comes in many varieties and repays commitment and a degree of familiarity. And again, like jazz, it can be unpredictable in company. Too often a supposedly grand bottle, introduced ceremoniously at the dinner table, has turned out to contain nothing like the nectar promised by its reputation. Too often have I had to make apologies along the lines of “it must be past its best!”

Some of you may have been lucky in your formative years; perhaps you shared that first bottle of well-cellared, fine-vintage claret in convivial company when you were just old enough to appreciate it; or you may have heard  Miles Davies’ ‘Kind of Blue’ when you were at the prime impressionable age. In either case you would need no further encouragement to delve deeper. But, should you come to these things later in life, you will have to clear away a lot of brushwood and ‘kiss a lot of frogs’ before you find the hidden treasure. I am still thrashing through the undergrowth and kissing frogs.

Just lately we invited some old friends around for Sunday lunch. With the food all prepared and the table laid, I turned my attention to the remaining tasks of choosing some background music and selecting a few bottles of red wine – forgetting all I had previously learned about making recommendations to others. I rummaged through hundreds of CDs without coming to any firm conclusion and studied the labels on a dozen bottles of red wine several times over. I had resorted to opening and sampling them by the time our guests were at the door.

But I managed to come up with a Plan B: I deftly tuned-in to a jazz radio station on the internet which absolved me of all responsibility for the playlist. As for the wine, I served what our generous guests had brought, leaving them to take the praise (or otherwise) for its excellence. The lunch party swung along nicely and, for several days afterwards, I busied myself with some solo research - drinking up the opened bottles while working through some dusty old CDs.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Master Plan

I went to see an exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of a company called Building Design Partnership. I admire the fact that the founder, an architect, deliberately set out to avoid celebrity by not using either his own name or the word ‘architect’. Instead he established a collective of specialists to design and deliver large-scale buildings. The strategy was unusual but it worked and the commissions began to flow in. Over time they grew in scale so that the work is now international and includes not only individual buildings but also complete environments such as airports, campuses, green housing estates and city regeneration projects.

Their achievements are impressive, as is the exhibition where examples of projects are represented by intricately crafted models, professional photos and beautifully rendered drawings. In the presentation everything looks at its best: even the scaled-down people who inhabit the models and drawings look cool and their little cars, lightly distributed around the tree-lined, uncongested roads, seem trendy.  Everything is perfectly ordered, clean and functional: architecture has been re-named ‘building design’ and large, complex projects ‘master-planning’.

That same evening I went to a meeting at the Town Hall to hear the police Superintendant report on his progress towards keeping on top of things in our city centre. He spent a lot of time describing how he had structured his force – as if it had only recently occurred to him that it needed a structure. I found this disconcerting until I realised that he is continually discarding previous structures that have either failed or outlived their effectiveness in a fluctuating, dynamic situation.

The city has many stakeholders and their interests often conflict. That evening there was much discussion, for example, about that part of the night-time economy which generates income from the sale of alcohol (and other drugs) and, to the disturbance of many residents, results in noise and disorder in the streets into the early hours. This is one of the issues that keep the Superintendant and his force very busy.

His load would be considerably lightened if a little master-planning could be applied to this state of affairs. If all the late-night drinking places were in zone A and all the residents lived in zone B he would need fewer cops to sort out the problems between them. Actually it would simplify many peoples’ jobs if such a logistic heaven were to become reality but, alas, it is too late. The city didn’t have a conceptual master plan and no amount of retrospective planning will ever compensate for that.

But all is not lost; there are schemes abroad to build new cities from scratch – the Master Planners’ dream-come-true.  If they ever build one conveniently situated for me I would like to live in it for a while - just to see if they got it right and, of course, to check out how long it takes for all the model people and cars to get jumbled up.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Worried about Wakefield

Two names connected up in my consciousness this week: Barbara Hepworth, the sculptor, and John Lewis, the retailer. The latter came up in conversation with a friend for whom the department store is a preferred destination. The former featured a couple of days later when I travelled to Wakefield to visit the newly-built art gallery, devoted to and named for the famous daughter of that city. It was there that the dots were joined up and I ‘discovered’ what many people already know: that Barbara was commissioned, in 1962, to create a sculpture to adorn the face of John’s shop in Oxford Street. It’s still there – although I admit to having never noticed it.

I’ve always liked Barbara Hepworth’s work, more especially since visiting her wonderfully evocative studio in St. Ives some years ago, and although Wakefield did not promise the romantic or artistic allure of the North Cornwall fishing port, I had decided that it is close enough to home for an easy excursion. But if, like me, you had Wakefield stereotyped as a run-down Northern backwater then arriving by train at Kirkgate station would perfectly confirm your prejudice: desolate, derelict and downright dangerous it is incredible – but for the fact of the matter - that this unmanned station is in daily use in the centre of an English city.

The walk from Kirkgate to the Hepworth gallery, though short, is unpleasant because it requires the crossing of complex, busy trunk roads. But the destination, a bend in the river, is attractive and well chosen and the new building, despite its profusion of blank, sharply angled, blue-grey concrete walls, manages to look at home, nestled cosily in the bosom of nature.

It was a school holiday when I visited so, once inside, my bleak, edge-of-town experience was quickly displaced by the cheerful hubbub of visiting families. The gallery itself is beautifully fit-for-purpose and the exhibits are intelligently displayed so as to present their most dramatic faces. The whole is undoubtedly a collection of world-class art housed in an appropriately magnificent setting – just as I had expected.

The walk back to the station, however, revealed something I had not expected. I took a more considered look at the surroundings and went a little out of the way, crossing busy traffic routes, so as to get close to the mediaeval Chantry Chapel. This fabulously ornate jewel of a building is isolated on a now disused bridge over the river. There were no visiting families admiring the intricate stone carvings. There was not even one passer-by. It was closed-up but for a notice pinned to the door advertising occasional services of worship. This building is a spectacular reminder not only of the former prosperity of Wakefield but also of the cultural shifts that have occurred since. Now it stands neglected and vulnerable to vandalism.

Approaching the station on foot was another revelation. The elegantly symmetrical, stone-faced station building dates back to 1845 and was listed (in 1979) as historically important. Although much damage has been done to it before and since, the grandeur of the architecture still proclaims its former significance as it clings, along with its later spawn of scruffy industrial sheds, to the commanding hillside position where it once served as a lynchpin of the regional economy. Its present owners afford it no respect.

The very small slice of Wakefield that I walked through contains important mediaeval, Victorian and contemporary heritage landmarks; yet all the money and attention has been lavished on just one of them. The new gallery is certainly a ‘destination’ but it is only the latest milestone in Wakefield’s history; as a newcomer it has no right to elbow the others into obscurity. And the City is, more than ever before, accessible at the centre of a network of canals, motorways and railways: Kirkgate station is a stop on the main rail line to and from London. Someone in the City Council should be thinking about joining up the dots.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Loyal or Habitual?

Some mornings are just a bit dull: inspiration is elusive, the in-tray is full of trivia and there’s no one around to talk to. On such mornings I need to kick-start the day so I shun the desk, get washed and brushed-up, step briskly out of the front door and go in search of coffee. The only problem is that, within five minutes walk of my front door, there are least (without counting properly) 25 coffee bars to choose from so, as the door closes behind me, I become embroiled in a decision-making process fraught with unwanted anxiety.

The process is a struggle between logic and emotion. How do I choose the optimum venue to get the feel-good factor I crave? Should I go to one of the bustling coffee bars on the main road, where I could, by association, catch a little energy? Would I prefer somewhere quieter on a side-street where I might study the paper, undisturbed by hubbub? But then, busy or quiet, which of those slick, themed chain establishments - Italian, Spanish, American or South-American - should it be?  Then, just as I’m making progress, conscience intervenes to remind me I should support the newly-established, worthy-but-cheesy, fair-trade independent. By contrast- and for proper, old-fashioned service- how about that posh hotel lounge with (if the weather’s fine) its south-facing patio? But how decadent is that? Surely I should make better use of my time and go to the one in the bookshop where I could browse; or maybe the one in the art gallery where I could get cultured? Then again I’m tempted by the fashionable bar where the seats are comfortable and cast a glance over at the local deli where they are not. Perhaps I should narrow the choice by deciding which type of coffee I fancy: medium-roasted in a cafetiere or dark-roasted espresso?

It’s now getting on for lunchtime so I take the lazy way out of my dilemma and decide to deploy one of my loyalty cards – the one with the most stamps on it. I know they didn’t invent loyalty cards just to help indecisive people like me; they are really a nifty device to keep us overpaying for cups of coffee in anticipation of the eventual accumulation of sufficient points to get a ‘free’ one (in which case they should rightly be called Bribery Cards). But my problem is solved and that coffee does taste so much better for being free of charge.

Nevertheless, I feel pathetic about my reliance on the loyalty card and begin to reflect on the subtle, insinuating danger they embody: their pernicious effect is to encourage habitual behaviour - and I don’t need much encouragement for that. Not only is my wallet is stuffed with cards but they have also spilled out and infiltrated my head in such a way that I have acquired quite a few ‘virtual’ loyalty cards of my own. I have one for French wine, one for English ale and one for a certain style of jazz to name but three. In fact my virtual loyalty cards, rather like my plastic ones, have accumulated, unnoticed, to a tipping point: that at which they define my lifestyle by excluding the possibilities of novel experiences.

So, enough of this timid, repetitive, self-assuring behaviour; next time the morning is a bit dull I intend to set out on a (sort-of) systematic attempt to take coffee in every one of the venues that qualifies as within five minutes walk. The resulting experiences will be laboriously turned into a novel and published under the title ‘Sod the Loyalty Card’.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Dancing on Graves

If there is such a thing as a ‘modern architecture gene’ then I certainly have one. I became aware of it during my teenage years in Plymouth. The centre of the city was completely re-modelled in the 1950s and, although I had no knowledge of what it was like before it was laid waste by the German bombers of World War Two, I instinctively approved of the reincarnation: wide, straight boulevards and bright buildings of concrete, white stone and glass, clean and unadorned except for a little meaningful modern sculpture here and there. This patch of modernity, however, was not about denying the city’s deep heritage which is rooted in the places visible from the hilly vistas down to Plymouth Sound. Places such as the Barbican, the Royal Naval Dockyards, Stonehouse and the Hoe continue to be the lifeblood of the city.

Proudly positioned high on the Hoe stands a structure dedicated as a reminder of the city’s role in history. It is the memorial monument to the Royal Naval personnel who died in the two World Wars. I was drawn to it visually by its striking, sombre architecture but then, more intimately, by the lists of names recorded there on bronze tablets. I began, out of simple curiosity, by looking for my own family name but soon progressed to friends’ family names and then to any name that might be familiar - by whatever connection. During this process the realisation dawned that I was related, by shared values and common ground, to all of those on the list and that I was myself a part of the continuous process called ‘history’. I understood that the names were posted in order to give each their individual place in that same history and that the names stood for real men of my father’s and grandfathers’ generation who had died in circumstances I could only imagine.

At Tower Hill in London there is a similar monument (it also has a World War Two “extension”, designed by Sir Edward Maufe, in the form of a sunken, walled garden) except that this one is dedicated to the civilian, merchant seamen who perished. And, while the backdrop history of the wars may be the same, the listings themselves hint at a broader picture. Many of the names are more exotic or foreign-sounding than the typically British names of the period which suggests that they may have been recruited in the faraway ports of a once sprawling maritime empire. Their names are grouped under the ships they sailed on and the ports to which those ships were registered. The names of the ships may not be familiar but the ports - such as Aberdeen, West Hartlepool, Belfast, Liverpool, Cardiff, Hull, Glasgow, Grimsby, Troon, Scarborough, London and so on - certainly are - although most are now shadows of what they used to be. Once thronged with ships and ship-building, they are now sidelined by containerisation and airfreight, their industrial expertise all but lost, searching for other reasons to be.

I was at the Tower Hill Memorial on a sunny afternoon when the place, because it has a tiny park attached, is a magnet for office workers on their breaks and for tourists hovering around the Tower of London. The tourists did not stop to read the cast-bronze plaques fixed to the stonework. They ambled past them, wide-eyed for the big picture, stopping only briefly to photograph each other with the Tower in the background. The office workers read their books and papers, ate their snacks and closed their eyes to look up to the sun for a recharge before heading back to work.
The tourists and the lunchtime solace-seekers may be forgiven their nonchalance. The owner of the land, Tower Hamlets Council, may not. It has agreed to rent the park to a hospitality company who will cover it with a marquee for four weeks in the run-up to Christmas. There they will host lavish office parties for the very City firms who have wrecked our economy and will now be encouraged to dance on our graves. 

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Caught on Film

Those who like to watch films will be familiar with the debate over whether the size of the screen and the excellence of the sound system make any difference to the quality of the experience. My vote is a qualified “Yes, they do”. I tried watching Star Trek – the First Mission on the TV the other evening but I didn’t start to enjoy it until I projected it onto my big screen, turned up the surround-sound and was able to wallow in the special effects. I concluded that, if a film lacks qualities that are emotionally, intellectually or dramatically engaging, its only saviour is likely to be good, hi-tech presentation.

Meanwhile, in search of filmic fulfilment at the local cinema, I caught up with several new releases. Troll Hunter was the first, followed, in rapid succession, by Jane Eyre, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy...and Drive. The trailers for all of these films promised that they were un-missable (as they always do) and trailers are a very clever way of beguiling potential customers. There we are, sitting comfortably, thankful that the adverts have finished and anticipating something special. All they have to do is employ their well-practised skills of creative editing to produce a tantalising taste of what is to come.

I was duly hooked for these four, all of which have impressive production pedigrees: they are excellent right through from casting and acting, to lighting, camera work, sound-tracks and editing. But films also need to have content and context which is meaningful to their intended viewers. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy... is set in the 1970’s and based on the intrigues of the Cold War. It may have a perplexing plot (I haven’t read the novel on which it is based) but it does have an historical background which is familiar and a visual re-creation of the period which is accurate and evocative of times I have lived through. Some of these qualities might count for less with a viewer from a generation later but they were crucial for me.

Drive is a film with a background familiar to me in a different way: I have seen other films like it. The world of organised crime in Los Angeles is not my special subject and this film may or may not represent it accurately. I hope that the unremittingly extreme violence it portrays is a characteristic of the genre to which it belongs rather than a real depiction of a few days in the life of a minor criminal: but I don’t know and am therefore left suspended between fantasy and reality.

And who needs another version of Jane Eyre? Perhaps the cynical answer is that nobody does. But, since there are directors who feel the need, we may as well enjoy the fruits of their labour. It’s a love story which, historical setting apart, has universal appeal although, for me, the history adds layers of fascination to the story. I was able, within a few days of seeing the film, to visit Haddon Hall, Derbyshire, where much of the filming took place. Haddon Hall is one of those places which can so easily teleport us back through English history by the magic of its un-spoiled and enduring presence in the midst of altered environs. The concurrence of the place, the social history, the literary tradition and the love story make the film itself meaningful beyond its undoubted technical attributes.

In another tradition, Trolls - not those brightly coloured, cute little dolls that used to live on car dashboards and on the ends of pencils - are big, smelly, nasty creatures of Norwegian mythology. That’s all I know about them which is why Troll Hunter is a film best experienced in a hi-tech cinema with a very large screen and a monster sound system.  

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Seen in a Different Light

When the sun shines brightly over Manchester it affords an opportunity to appreciate some of the finer qualities of its ornate, Victorian buildings. So did it shine one recent morning as I walked to the city’s main art gallery to see the newly-opened exhibition of the works of Ford Maddox Brown: the rays hit the buildings acutely, lighting up their decorative features and bringing into sharp relief the intricate detailing of stone, brick and terra-cotta. My eyes were drawn, for the first time, to three words embossed above the second storey windows of a grand, commercial, red-brick edifice: HONESTY, PRUDENCE and PERSEVERANCE. A little further up the road one of the Gallery’s buildings, the classical, Italianate stone-built Athenaeum, competed for the moral high ground with its own inscription, carved around the frieze: FOR THE ADVANCEMENT AND DIFFUSION OF KNOWLEDGE. The buildings on this street could not be described as ambivalent.

Nor is ambivalence a feature of the work of Ford Madox Brown. Now recognised as an innovative, pioneering painter his work created a new style which profoundly influenced the young Pre-Raphaelites. He was also an original partner in the firm founded by William Morris in 1861, for which he designed stained-glass windows, textiles, wallpapers and even furniture. But, despite this diversity, the exhibition of multi-faceted art created by him is much more than the display of visual splendour we might expect.

The passionate colours of his painting and the haunting qualities of its subjects may be what first command attention but closer inspection reveals layers of social and political comment implicit in the imagery- an approach which was unique at the time. Two of his most famous paintings, Work and The Last of England, demonstrate this quality most conspicuously but it is to be found in many of his other works as well. In the latter part of his career he worked - and lived for some years - in Manchester where he had been commissioned to create murals for the Town Hall. During this time he participated actively with the life of the city, leaving traces which we may now delight in detecting through the work he left behind and the ways in which it intertwines with local history. As an example, a five-minute walk from the Gallery, there is a statue of President Lincoln. It is there to commemorate his gratitude to the mill-workers of Lancashire for the stand they took against slavery despite their consequent loss of livelihood due to the ensuing blockade of cotton from the southern states. Back in the exhibition hangs a painting which Brown donated to raise funds for the relief of those workers.

The location of the exhibition, placed in a building dedicated to art and craft, in a city built out of monumental social change, reinforces the sense that Brown’s creativity is engaged not only in his art but in design, politics and society as well. On leaving the Gallery I looked up again, respectfully, at the motto on the frieze. A little more knowledge had been advanced in my direction and I felt inspired to play a small part in its diffusion.

The sunlight lasted into that evening, reflecting soft hues of deep, dusky pink from the monumental, 19th century red brick buildings, bouncing back from the 20th century glass towers and soaking into the honey-coloured stone of the classical-themed fantasies to display a tableau of urban development and social change in one great, unstructured son et lumiere. I thought about the inscribed pledge of honesty, prudence and perseverance which proclaimed the values of the incumbent business of an earlier age and compared it with modern-day, bland ‘mission statements’ about customer satisfaction. I began to dream of persuading banks to resurrect the old values and to post them proudly on their web-sites. But then I remembered one of the last works in the exhibition: a portrait of St. Jude – the patron saint of hopeless causes. 

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Theatrical Questions

I hear that audiences in Beijing and Shanghai are currently flocking to theatres to see a stage version of Mama Mia! sung in Mandarin. Given that musicals are not part of the Chinese cultural tradition this is a curious phenomenon and one which raises questions about the globalisation of culture. Does, for example, globalisation inevitably involve cultural dilution or can it – more positively ­– be instrumental in cultural cross-fertilisation which leads us to rich veins of new creativity? The question is more likely to end in a discussion than a conclusion.

I was recently asked a question: “Do you go to the theatre often?” to which I replied “No, not really” before going on to roll out my rehearsed excuse for this cultural blind-spot which asserts that there are too many productions of the same old plays. Who needs yet another version of The Cherry Orchard or of Hamlet ? I’ve seen them before. Can’t we have something new so that I might be persuaded to buy into the concept of theatre more readily? But I was told that my response is typical of one who presumes that theatres are where you go to watch plays; and that plays comprise scripted dialogue, spoken by actors and visually enhanced by scenery, props and the occasional special effect – all neatly packaged into periods of time known as ‘acts’, some of which are separated by ice-cream breaks and the whole of which commences at just the time when you might like to be settling down to dinner.

Over the past few months, therefore, I have challenged my assumptions by making an effort to see more theatrical performances (I deliberately refrain from using the word ‘play’) than usual. I have seen them in a variety of venues: a cinema, a room over a pub, a converted industrial space, an un-converted industrial space, an old music-hall, a modern provincial theatre and yes, a more traditional West End theatre! Not one of the performances I saw could be described as fitting the stereotype of my prejudice. Each one of them challenged some aspect or other of that stereotype and compelled me to reconsider.

Reconsidering prejudices can be an uncomfortable process, as in this case, which required that I buy tickets in order to subject myself, voluntarily, to whatever proposition was being presented. I can only guess at their motives but I assume that, when they are writing a play or devising a performance, the creators do not do so aimlessly. They must have a positive intention to appeal to their audience; perhaps to inform, to entertain, to stimulate or to shock. In some cases I find the intention is clear; in others it is less so and I, their audience, am entitled to make up my own mind as to the point, or pointlessness, of the piece. I have come across at least one suspected instance of “the emperor’s new clothes” but, set against this, many positive experiences of pleasure and enlightenment.

I have emerged with a resolve to “go to the theatre” more often but; how do I decide which performances to attend and which to shun? As a rule of thumb I would opt for the novel and against the repeat performance. The Cherry Orchard and Hamlet  are undoubtedly classics of their genres but to see them performed yet again, albeit by different companies and in different ways, would encourage habitual behaviour patterns just when I am trying to shake them off. My inner critic is telling me to search instead for the future classics of the theatre and I am not about to rule out Mama Mia! sung in Mandarin until I have seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears and engaged fully with the cultural globalisation debate that it generates.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Roaming Ticket

I took a bus the other day, around the Isle of Dogs in East London. It’s a regular, scheduled bus which takes people about their daily business but, since I had no particular daily business and I am not familiar with the route, I was able to enjoy the journey for the simple pleasure of discovery. The history of this area is probably familiar - it contains many of the docks of London which were once so important to the trade of an empire. But they became redundant and unloved when the empire collapsed and cargoes became containerised. Now they have been revived as marinas and ‘water features’ for the enhancement of housing and office developments.

I would have appreciated a knowledgeable guide to give me a spoken commentary on the journey but had to make do with picking up the clues and piecing them together with the help of an A-Z street map. Names, like Westferry Road and Eastferry Road, have very obvious origins, as do the many others with seafaring references to wharfs, cargoes and overseas destinations. Other streets are named after people of presumed importance to the area and there is, intriguingly, a major route called Manchester Road. Best of all is a place called Mudchute, so named because it was the destination of all the mud and silt excavated during the creation of Millwall docks then deposited there by conveyor belt.

The topography of the Isle of Dogs is dominated by the huge rectangular tracts of water chopped into the land which, although they may disorientate the casual visitor, have dictated the geography of the place since their conception so that even Canary Wharf- that self-contained, commercially sustained private estate- is, despite its massive scale, built around those old dock excavations. The bus diverts through security gates into the guarded territory of Canary Wharf so that passengers may access its immaculately tended buildings and open spaces. The power of money is manifest here in a harmony and order which contrasts sharply with the visual jumble of the public environment surrounding it.

Back in Manchester another, less epic, bus journey also transported me through history - although this time it was my own past that I encountered. The bus passed a house I had once lived in and wound its way through old stamping grounds I had long since forsaken. On this route I should not have needed clues to help with the story; my own, silent commentary was running. But, after a while, a question emerged: “Had I really lived here?”  I tried winding back the tape and pressing replay but the picture was rather blurred. All those years later and, with no remaining connections to the place, the focus had become indistinct. It could have been another person’s life that I was contemplating, set in a familiar-looking suburb on a typical bus route. Some memories emerged, like brief sequences of a dream, but I could detect no real trace of me in the passing landscape. At my destination I stepped off the bus and into the present day wondering what had really happened back then.

Getting from A to B is straightforward and easy to achieve if that’s what you want: take stock of where you are, decide where you want to go and when you want to arrive, buy yourself a ticket and get on board. For some this serves as an effective strategy for life itself– a focused progression towards a predetermined outcome. But not knowing where you want to go can be a more interesting proposition; it contains the potential of open horizons and adventures beyond everyday experience. The scenic route, the roamer ticket, the speculative journey: these are not to be dismissed as mere whimsy, for they may be used as the means to an end – one which is deliberately not predetermined. Getting on a bus is a great way to get you to places you didn’t know you wanted to go.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Interior Motives

The Geffrye Museum of the Home contains a series of replicated, domestic room-sets chronologically displayed. The first is from circa 1600 and the last is from the present day- a typical, so called ‘loft’ apartment converted from an industrial building. Despite the fact that the Geffrye, a former alms house, is a very linear building, which dictates the layout of the display, there is a perceptibly circular trend to the history of the interiors depicted: from the minimal content and decoration of the Elizabethan room, through the clutter and over-decoration of the late Victorian and back again to the bare bones of the contemporary loft. It was while viewing this last exhibit that a fellow visitor turned to me and said “I couldn’t live in that!” When I pressed him he did not offer a rational explanation but I concluded that such an interior would not fit in with his habitual way of living.

My preferred style of living might be described, in current terminology, as ‘minimal’ but I have had my preconceptions on this point challenged just lately; most notably by Junya Ishigami, an architect who “works between the spheres of architecture and art” and strives to “dissolve the boundaries between inside and outside”. He takes minimalism very seriously, as can be seen in his gallery pieces, which are structures on a very large scale yet so delicately made, of gossamer-like fibres, that they are almost invisible. Actually this transcends minimalism- I would call it etherialism and wonder how that might translate into a style of living.

Outside of museums I have had an opportunity to consider other peoples’ modes of living in a very practical way: I have been ‘apartment-sitting’. For us apartment-sitters the domestic circumstances of the absent occupants inevitably present a variety of vicarious experiences but, regardless of whether it’s a comfortable place in a desirable location or a gloomy dwelling in a desolate spot, there is always another dimension - one from which we may draw imaginings. Sooner or later the observation of some small detail- such as the positioning of a chair, a plant or a picture- will begin to suggest what is of importance in the lives of the absent occupants and this is the moment when we begin to reflect on our own priorities. Living in someone else’s place presents an opportunity to awake from our complacency, see things from another’s perspective and learn that apparently innocent,  everyday objects can obstruct the inventiveness of our minds simply by their habitual presence.

During my recent sitting I tried to balance the urge to re-arrange the place to my own liking with the need to respect the preferences of my absent hosts. The process resulted first in contemplation of a new career as an interior designer, then a brief flirtation with Feng Shui, but progressed, eventually, to the higher plane of questioning how and why I acquired my own habitual routines and rituals, my own physical and mental clutter. I concluded that clutter creeps up, unnoticed, and accumulates in whatever space is available. After a while routines, rituals and clutter all become inter-dependent and start to dictate my life-patterns. The cycle needs to be broken, the desk cleared and the job started afresh.

Apartment-sitting is good therapy for this condition because different or unfamiliar environments will engender random connections- and random connections are fuel for the imaginative, creative processes. If we stay at home we remain in an environment which has been honed to preserve habitual behaviour patterns and makes us feel too comfortable to be bothered with adventure.

I have it in mind to contact the Geffrye Museum soon with a proposition for a creative art installation/performance/experiment. It will take the form of me living, one week at a time, in each of their period room-sets without changing or moving any object. I should also like to propose to Junya Ishigami that I live in his place on similar terms, although I would be very disappointed if it turned out that he lives in a Tokyo suburb in a cosy bungalow full of bric-a-brac and surfaces printed with floral patterns.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Mental Mapping

Whenever I travel I have a map of the world in my mind’s eye: so, if I were travelling northwards of my start point, I would be moving up the map; if southwards I would be moving down; and, if east or west, across it. I don’t think this is unusual (apart from the fact that I have recently started to worry about whether I should be using the Mercator or the Peters projection).

I came down from Manchester to London to stay for a few weeks, during which time my sister visited, insisting that she had come up to London from Lincolnshire; those who are familiar with England’s geography will soon spot the anomaly. I happen to know that she is not geographically challenged, that she came by car and was guided by a sat-nav map. So what is going on in her mind’s eye? Does she perceive London to be in a different direction or, perhaps, a different dimension? Has our capital city come to rest on the same elevated plane as Oxford and Cambridge universities which, according to their convention, are always up no matter what your direction of approach?

Those who have lived in London (and I am one) will be familiar with the notion that its inhabitants believe themselves to be at the centre of all that matters and that every other place in the U.K. is provincial - in the most demeaning sense of the word. But I have now lived long enough in Manchester to have acquired a Northerly perspective which makes me keen to subvert such a view and to promote Manchester to the premier league of British cultural achievements other than football. I take my opportunities whenever I can: as in, for example, an after-dinner discussion on the outbreak of rioting which, a few weeks ago, was big news. One of the Londoners present recalled hearing that there had been a similar (but minor) disturbance in one of the provinces – was it Manchester? “Yes”, I said “but it was a mere shadow of the real outbreak back in 1819 when 80,000 Mancunians turned out to demand the reform of parliamentary representation”. There was, of course, no riposte to this famous illustration of Northerners’ advanced political views and zealous pursuit of social reform for the benefit of the majority of citizens in England.

Flushed with success and confident of having earned some respect for the prowess of lowly provincials- I was brought back down to earth later when, in a packed Tube-station elevator, I took the initiative to act as operator (having read the instruction posted on the wall) but pressed the ‘alarm’ button instead of the ‘ascend’ button. A bell sounded, the door froze in the open position and a collective sigh of despair went up around me. My public admission of guilt and my bluff, Northern apology did nothing to advance my cause.

Maybe it’s a hopeless cause anyway. Locating Manchester on a map is a simple question of reading the grid reference. Putting Manchester on the map proves to be more difficult. The first Londoner I ever knew was from Brick Lane and he told me that, for him, ‘up North’ meant Hackney. Some years later, in Portsmouth, I met a bloke who referred to the Isle of Wight as being ‘down South’.

Up, down or sideways everyone’s reading of the map centres on their own location: everywhere else is of secondary importance. Grid references and sat-nav can help you get to them physically but cartography is only one tool in the box when it comes to going places.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Ways We Live

I once lived in a Victorian suburb in a Victorian villa which, although grandly conceived, had subsequently suffered degradation as a result of socio-economic and demographic change- in short it had been converted into bed-sits in the early 1960’s. I spent several years fondly restoring it to something like its original condition only to find (to my surprise) that the end result was a house that was perfectly suited to middle class, Victorian family life - but not to my own lifestyle.

I had this in mind recently when I took a trip down Memory Lane, hopping aboard the newly-opened tram service from the city centre to a similar suburb, Chorlton, five miles out. Returning to this once-familiar place I was struck by how ugly it now looks. I mean no disrespect to Chorltonites, as I am sure the same can be said of many such suburbs around the country, but the harmoniously conceived architecture of the late 19th century has been rendered un-harmonious by successive generations of inhabitants. Progressive layers of modernisation clash visually with each other and with what remains of the original architectural aesthetic. Redundancy of purpose and change of use sit unhappily on many formerly handsome edifices.

I suspect that, to those who live there, the place is comfortable like a favourite old coat and the visual aesthetics do not offend in the same way. But, walking around those streets, I saw shabby, run-down villas subdivided into flats, their unkempt front gardens mostly paved over and littered with big rubbish bins, their decorative features chopped up or painted over, their graceful proportions ruined by cumbersome extensions and all the streets crammed with cars, vans and motorcycles. I imagined what it must have looked like in the heyday of its development when the integrity of its design was intact: the rows of houses intended for family life, the parade of shops built to accommodate all the specialist retailers, the schools, the churches, the library and the pubs all conveniently positioned within walking distance of the houses. It had been designed for a society with shared values and a uniform way of living but what I now beheld was the messy result of haphazard adaptation to different ways of living.

Of course the evolving ways we live are recognised and addressed by architects and urban planners with myriad ideas and varying degrees of success: the process of change is as old as society itself. On my return to the city centre I visited an exhibition based on the theories of Charles Fourier who, in the early 19th century, devised a very detailed scheme for living. His grand plan depended on a communal approach and revolved around a standard building design which would serve as a live/work unit for groups of individuals – a sort of urban version of the classic village. His acolytes did subsequently establish some communities based on his plan but none of them lasted for more than a few years, the essential weakness with this type of idea being that it depends upon co-operation and concern for the interests of others.

Fourier wanted everyone to live a lifestyle defined by his ideals, in a dwelling tailored to fit those ideals but he was doomed to failure because he could never persuade everyone else to agree with him. To his credit, though, he had a vision of living which was not defined by inherited housing stock and, in that respect, he was ahead of the pack. Some of us might aspire, as he did, to a different lifestyle, one which manifests itself in another type of dwelling - a country cottage, a town house, a Mediterranean retreat or a narrowboat on the canals - yet, believing it to be beyond our reach, make do with what we have; and thereby run the risk of remaining trapped in the Victorian villas of our minds. 

Friday, 19 August 2011

Doing Nothing Is an Option

It is August and I am living temporarily in an apartment with huge windows overlooking the Thames at Wapping, where I find myself staring at the river far too often and for far too long. I don’t consider it to be a profitable or educative activity; in fact, my conscience tells me, it’s not really an activity at all, unless you were to categorise it as a displacement activity, i.e. one which substitutes for properly profitable or educative ones. I am, in fact, doing nothing and this does not sit well with the Anglo-Saxon Protestant Work Ethic I acquired (despite having had a French mother and a Roman Catholic education) possibly from my father’s genes.

Perhaps it has something to do with August and the feeling that it’s holiday time, a time when ‘to do nothing’ is acceptable. People say that nothing happens in August anyway because everyone is away on holiday; but this is a myth perpetuated by the physical absence of our political leaders and a large proportion of the media and news-reporting establishment, who have assiduously set up euphemistic ‘out of office’ notices to fend off incoming email. The myth surely loses credibility in the face of events: the famine in the Horn of Africa, the rioting and looting in the streets of English cities, the crisis of confidence in the Euro currency and the general collapse of the global trading economy. These things are sent to try us; even in August.

Furthermore, given that the concept of holidays is predicated on the existence of workdays, it follows that such a concept is an irrelevance to the millions who are unemployed. And for another significant body of the population, the self-employed, the distinction between work-time and leisure-time has become so blurred that, for them, August may not be a special month either.

Falling as I do into one or the other of these two categories, the arrival of August is not a plausible explanation or justification for my inactivity. I must look elsewhere, for I am reluctant to concede that I may be simply running out of steam, or that life is no longer a source of wonder to me. Discussion of the subject with intimates usually concludes with statements such as “we all need down-time” or “you need to recharge your batteries” but these have the unsatisfactory ring of the cliché and my faux Anglo-Saxon conscience remains un-salved.

Delving around, however, I have unearthed some strands of tradition which acknowledge my dilemma and which undermine the “use it or lose it” school of thought. I have it on good authority, for example, that Italians are comfortable with the whole ethos, having coined the phrase dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. But then, they are not especially troubled by the Anglo-Saxon Protestant Work Ethic. I found a website called which positively encourages inactivity; but even I can manage two minutes without angst and, anyway, the site falls disappointingly short when it comes to propounding a theory. Then, at the other end of the scale, we have Buddhist monks devoting their whole lives to understanding and perfecting the art of doing nothing – which is a little excessive in my context.

Perhaps I should look closer to home where I recall an old saying which I once dismissed as quaintly foolish but now appreciate contains a kernel of comforting wisdom. It works best when spoken with a West Country burr, thus: ‘Sometimes I just sits and thinks. Other times I just sits’.  I think I’ll just learn to live with that.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The National Interest

When your trip to the countryside is spoiled by the rain, the thing to do is nip into the nearest National Trust stately home, where treasures and curios of all kinds reveal some of the more intimate details of English history. It’s the museum world’s equivalent of the celebrity gossip column. On such a day in North Wales (they are frequent) I went to explore Plas Newydd, the home of the 7th Marquess of Anglesey.

The lady at the ticket desk took the customary opportunity to try to raise the value of the transaction by offering to sell me printed guides and histories but I declined them; I had another plan in mind. My father, who used to embarrass me by his habit of striking up conversations with strangers, would never have bought a booklet. His preferred approach to history was the handed-down verbal tradition, nicely spiced with nods and winks. I knew that, in each room of the house, there would be a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guardian who, if asked, would tell all they knew about the place and its history and I intended to use my father’s method.

I got a result straight away when the lady in the grand hallway told me that the Marquess still lives there (in a rather nice five-roomed flat upstairs) although the Marchioness retreated to Knightsbridge and has not been seen since the estate was ‘given’ to the National Trust. She, apparently, could not stomach the fact that visitors no longer needed royal connections in order to gain entry to the Plas.

In the next room I was drawn to the 1890s photo portrait on the sideboard: it is of the obviously gay Henry, the 5th Marquess, posing in a very elaborate and fanciful theatrical costume. My interest elicited the story of how he spent his way to bankruptcy and caused the main estate in Staffordshire to be sold off in the 1930s. The family subsequently had to eke out a living from what was left in Derbyshire, Dorset and Anglesey. I suggested it was unfortunate but, since it had all been stolen by the Normans and then dished out to their friends anyway, this could be seen as a step in the right direction towards the redistribution of wealth to the English natives. The guardian chose not to take me up on this line of discussion looking, instead, to anticipate the queries of the next visitor.

Nearby was a specially designed and constructed ‘rent table’ which evoked, to me at least, a scene of the tenant farmers shuffling, in line, into the estate office where they respectfully doffed their caps and stumped up tithes to their God-given master who, depending on his predilections, might either re-invest it into the estate or squander it in fashionable London society. This time, however, I kept my thoughts to myself.

I then turned my attention to an old photograph of two very young girls. “Yes” said the guardian “that’s Kitty and Henry, taken in 1924, when they were two”. “Henry?” said I, “Was it her nickname?” “No, it’s the present Marquess. It was common, in those days, to dress little boys as girls so as to fool any would-be kidnappers. Girls had no inheritance, you see.” Another photo of the same vintage showed the four older sisters dressed, boyishly, all in identical dungarees and with pageboy haircuts. “It was the fashion of the day” she explained. But this wasn’t just fashion – this was ultra-cool fashion and not representative of society in Anglesey at the time. This was London calling and these girls were dressed to impress. They had work to do, attention to attract and inheritances to bag.

The eldest of them, Caroline, in her teens and already looking like the beautiful, bisexual tearaway of later repute, broke the heart of (among others) Rex Whistler. His extraordinary, fantastical painting, which covers an entire wall of the long dining room, includes allegorical references to their relationship which, without the conspiratorial assistance of the room’s guardian, I would certainly have missed. Thanks, Dad.

Friday, 5 August 2011

A Night Out of Town

It was only a few weeks ago that I was afflicted by an inflammation of the lower lumbar joints which made walking so painful that I couldn’t make it to the corner shop. The condition is now much improved. Maybe it was my recent trip to Arles - which is not so far away from Lourdes - that brought about the cure but, in any case, mountain hiking is back on my life-agenda. So, as in days of old, my companion and I stuffed the campervan with kit and fired up for a journey to the mountains and a tentative attempt at a peak or two. While the south and east of the country experienced a sun-drenched heat-wave, we headed, resolutely, north and west towards Snowdonia, where the cooler air coming in off the Atlantic was turning into mist and light precipitation on the very slopes of our aspirations.

Our first evening there was spent in planning a two-day expedition which involved ‘wild’ overnight camping. A large part of the enjoyment of this type of activity derives from the anticipation and planning of it.  Another part comes from the assembling of equipment and kit and, yet another, from the satisfaction of using the stuff. The final part comes from the actual hiking. It follows that it is important to get the balance right: too much equipment means a burdensome rucksack and a curb on one’s pleasure; too little and one is exposed to the vagaries of mountain weather and terrain. Some people pack sawn-off toothbrushes and portion-controlled paste in sachets, thereby saving a few grams towards the accommodation of essentials such as flasks of wine and malt whisky. Those who are inclined to be obsessive should take heed: days can be spent in attempting to resolve this equation and there is a real danger of their never leaving the camp site.

We did eventually get going and walked up to and around a remote lake where we pitched our tiny tent (weighing in at only 1.3 kg) on the only piece of level ground we could find – a grassy ledge overlooking the lake. The clouds had cleared and a photo of our beautiful site would have made a perfect cover for a brochure advertising tourism in Snowdonia. It would not, however, have shown the midges which live in the grass. They like to emerge every evening and morning to plague campers who are intent on eating al fresco. There are several species of midge, only some of which bite and, of those, just the females. This might be useful information but for the fact that they are so microscopically small you cannot distinguish one from another.

Those parts of our bodies that we could not clothe were smeared with bug-repellent but midges are very successful at driving people to distraction, regardless of counter-measures, and so it was that we were obliged to retire early (seven o’clock) to the tent. There was relief and a moment of smug satisfaction at the fact that the ventilation panels are micro-mesh and midge-proof, but this was followed by the realisation that we were now prisoners in an extremely small nylon bag. We whiled away the time talking over our day, eking out our quota of alcohol and taking turns at sitting up, stretching out and turning over until sleep finally overcame us – at around eight thirty.

At eleven thirty I was awake, listening to a little creature scratching at the tent and hoping it would move on. At twelve thirty I decided to venture outside and shoo it away – only to find no creature but a clump of rough grass brushing against the gently flapping fly sheet. Thus disturbed, continued sleep was elusive, so I looked forward to the daylight (five thirty) and the resumption of hiking.

After a quick breakfast of green tea, cereal bars and midges we struck camp and moved on to enjoy some glorious hiking and some discussion, like others before us, of ways to beat the midges. Back in town I read about a device which is effective at attracting and trapping midges by the million. I just have to figure out how to get it into my rucksack.