Monday, 28 March 2011

Shopping Karma

I know it’s a bit old fashioned but, once spring makes its appearance, I generally adjust my wardrobe to suit the season. That is to say - I put away the woollen things and bring out the cotton. This process usually involves some fresh evaluation; for example when I can no longer convince myself that a particular item fits me, or even looks as if it belongs to the right fashion era, then I purpose to seek a replacement. I was engaged in this task recently, when a necktie snaked its way off a hanger and slid onto the floor. It’s one I am very fond of: the floral pattern is subtle and I rather imagine, had I the services of a personal colour-consultant, I would be advised that it tones in wonderfully well with my complexion. This necktie, however, is lonely. It has no shirt with which it can comfortably pair. It fights with stripes and checks, loses its lustre against competing colours and looks positively morose against grey, so it never gets an outing.

Later that morning there was a conversation, between sessions, down at the gym. Teacher, who was wearing white jogging pants seamed with thick vertical stripes representing the national colours of Brazil, was describing her fashion preferences to the ladies. I was reminded of my lonely tie and decided I would find it a partner that very afternoon. It was an unremarkable Tuesday, so I guessed that the shopkeepers would be pleased to see me; and so they were - up to a point.

In empty shop after empty shop, I explained my dilemma to assistants whose desperate mission was to shift their mountains of recession-bound stock. One of them feigned a real interest by suggesting that it would have been a good idea to bring the tie with me. He had a point. Another tempted me with a massively discounted shirt which almost passed muster, yet didn’t quite convince. A third insisted that a white shirt would do the job perfectly. “White” I said, “is just too formal for the tie. It’s looking for a more bohemian partner”. I judged, from his expression, that I had tested the limits of his empathy, thanked him for his interest and steered myself elsewhere in search of inspiration.

In Marks and Spencer’s, the shiny cellophane packaging of the neatly displayed rows of product did not give the laid-back, relaxed impression I had fixed upon and I realised I had reached a low point in my quest. The urgent priority I had allocated to my mission began to seem absurd and my resolve started to weaken. I reviewed my options and decided to return for a second viewing of the bargain shirt. This time round I was more easily persuaded and I left the salesman relieved, if not exactly happy, to have made a sale.

Mission accomplished, I sat at the window seat of a bar I had often walked past. The Chablis, like the shirt, was not quite convincing though I supposed it was all I deserved since I had allowed mediocrity to have its way so far that day. I tried, as I sipped, to convince myself that the shirt would be a useful addition to my collection, even if the tie rejected it utterly. I briefly considered taking it back for a refund, but I didn’t really want to put the assistant to any more inconvenience, or myself through further humiliation.

I observed the passers-by and tried to console myself with the theory that their shopping experience would be just as unsatisfactory as mine. One of them, wearing a hoodie and very distinctive jogging pants, paused to look into the window of a clothes shop. There was something familiar about her figure so I watched and, as she turned and took the cigarette from her lips, I recognised Teacher.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Pueblo Ingles - Part 2

From the moment we boarded the coach in Madrid, I sensed that there might be no escape. We were free to sit, for the next four hours, next to any stranger we chose – as long as they were Spanish. When we arrived at the hotel near La Alberca we were allocated nice, ski resort-style chalets which were comfortable and attractively situated. During the course of the week the hotel staff proved to be smiling and attentive at all times. The food was good and plentiful and there was always wine at the tables. We were even taken on outings – twice - to the village. There was a party night and other entertainments. On one of the days the sun even shone – weakly - and diffused, for a while, a kind of holiday mood (I have a photo). From somewhere deep in my subconscious, however, there began to emerge a remembrance of the 1960s TV series The Prisoner.

One day, during a break in the rain, the Programme Director looked up from his schedule sheets and announced that we were going to walk along the road to historic La Alberca. Those of us who subsequently survived the traffic were treated to a well-informed guided tour of its buildings, important historical features and more shops selling jamon than exist in the whole of the United Kingdom. We stroked the flanks of the granite pig statue, took photos and finally got to warm our hands around a cup of coffee in a cosy cafe. Next, we all squeezed into a dusty bodega where we had an opportunity to splash our faces with wine by drinking from the traditional skin flask and to sample the local jamon as an appetiser before lunch. The man in charge of the bodega looked familiar: had I had seen him somewhere before? Perhaps lurking back in a corner of the hotel.
Lunch promised to be fun. Those who had tried to break the world record for pouring red wine into their faces from an impossible distance were especially jolly. The restaurant was grand and the company lively at the prospect of sitting down somewhere warm for a while. The menu was unashamedly centred on pork and I came to appreciate that the ubiquitous red rioja is the perfect accompaniment for it. Lulled thus into a sense of bonhomie and well-being, it was some time before I noticed that the waiting staff from our hotel were there, in the restaurant, serving us. Things began to feel increasingly sinister.

Perhaps the Programme Director had sensed my unease, for he announced that we were free to make our own way back from the village afterwards. Some of us, the more adventurous, decided to try to find the legendary track through the woods and, at the edge of the village, soon ran into a huge sign, with red lettering and an arrow on a white background, suggesting the route. We kept a careful watch for guard dogs, but all we passed along the way was a lone, black pig waiting, in an enclosure, for its turn to be served up.

When we assembled back at the hotel to check the afternoon/evening schedule I could feel the collective apprehension and tension: Who - or what - would be your assignment for the next few hours was the only topic for discussion. At this point in the day, it was usual for several randomly-chosen members of our company to be led away up the stairs to a little side-room which I had never entered. Here they were sequestered until they had devised and rehearsed some entertainment for the group later that evening. Meanwhile, the rest of us were to continue plugging our way through one-to-one conversation sessions with varying degrees of pleasure, pain, triumph or frustration. There was just enough time to get a drink from the bar before we started, but the inscrutable young barman gave no hint of recognition that he had earlier served us in the village. Did he think we wouldn’t notice?

I scanned peoples’ name badges, looking for my next-assigned Spanish partner, and began to imagine that the rioja was laced with some subtle, mind-altering drug.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Pueblo Ingles - Part 1

Last Tuesday evening I found myself obliged to act the part of a wolf in an improvised mime performance of Little Red Riding Hood. The captive audience of around 40 people may well have laughed, but they also had to take their turn on stage, depicting fairy tales for the group. We did some other ridiculous things over the next few days – very few of them on our own initiative – for we were engaged in a learning programme.

I had volunteered to spend a week isolated with these people, half of whom were Spaniards learning English and the other half native speakers of English from around the world. We were in a rather nice hotel-complex, located in the hills to the west of Salamanca, attending an “immersion course” - so called because English was the only language allowed to be spoken by everyone present, including the hotel staff. The only Spanish sounds to be heard were the exotic, elegant names of the Spaniards which, for me, conjured up technicoloured scenes from their rich background of history, art and culture. In contrast, we Anglos mostly had stumpy, monosyllabic tags like Joe, Malc, Doug or Deb that cowered in the corners of our identity badges, trying to assert our “individuality” by denying all family connections. We might as well have been bar-coded.

So, from the start, it seemed a great pity that the beautiful and evocative Spanish language had to be replaced by the sprawling mish-mash of English; all for the sake of business, career promotions and the facilitation of international communication. Nevertheless, I settled to the task of conversing non-stop for 8 days. This may sound easy but the constant striving to understand and be understood is a tiring process, so we came to appreciate relief in the form of group activities such as silly games, an excursion to the local village, drinking, siestas and the (very) occasional free period.

In return for helping to develop the students’ foreign language skills, however, there was a valuable payoff. It turned out to be a great way to get to know something about Spain without having to bother to learn Spanish – a sort of free sample, or “try before you buy”. We found out about their food - we were in Iberica Jamon country, surrounded by the famous black pigs; we visited the tourist town of La Alberca, the first ever World Heritage site, protected as far back as the 1930’s; we encountered patriots of the separate and distinctive Catalan culture; and we learned a lot about Spanish football team allegiances. Culture, customs and family histories all came alive but, best of all, we discovered real Spanish people. Our close confinement with them revealed their charm, warmth, sociability, passion and sense of humour. We developed real relationships, quite different from those you could normally expect through fleeting contacts made during a typical visit.

The Spaniards, of course, will have had a different experience. Preoccupied as they must have been with the task they set themselves and confused, perhaps, by the variety of our accents, idioms and cultural and geographical references, many of them must have left the venue doubting whether they had made any linguistic progress at all.

In one respect, at least, we did all have a shared experience. When strangers are thrown together cliques soon start to form and, with a demographic which included 8 nations and spanned more than 40 years in age difference, there was plenty of scope for this social phenomenon. By the end of the week gossip was beginning to break out, sub-groups started to gather in secluded corners and would-be leaders and politicians began their canvassing. One wonders what kind of mini-society might have evolved by the end of a second week. Did the event organisers foresee this undesirable dynamic and decide that 8 days would be the optimal time-span for the maintenance of international harmony and understanding?

Monday, 14 March 2011

V Day - A Male Perspective

I was a coy, uninitiated teenager, unwillingly present at a gathering of my Devonian aunts, when an exchange of ribaldry broke out between them. I don’t recall much except that the least inhibited of them delivered the punchline, “Well, they do say you’m sittin’ on a fortune”. I blushed intensely, much to their amusement, for that was the first time that I had heard women talk  about the part of their anatomy that defines them so intimately.

Yes, I am talking about the vagina because, on March 8th 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, I was reminded of that incident when I attended a performance of The Vagina Monologues . This time there were different circumstances. For a start, this was a staged, theatrical event for which I had bought a ticket. So I could hide. The lights were dimmed and my blushes could go unnoticed. Also, I had the advantage, by now, of having more knowledge and experience of the topic. Nevertheless, I still expected this to be one of the less comfortable experiences to which I had voluntarily exposed myself.

The event was organised to mark IWD by a charity founded by women to help other women in distress. It’s easy to say that I am in favour of everything that IWD stands for because I actually am. It was easy to support the charity and buy a ticket for the performance. It was even easy to raise smiles from my female friends at the reception prior to the performance. They might have been smiles of pleasure at seeing me, or smiles of approval at my attendance, or even smiles of pity at my plight. Whatever the case, I welcomed them, for I was massively outnumbered by women and therefore keen to curry favour.

As we took our seats I nervously counted only three other men in the hall, but the opening sketches put me at ease. There were light-hearted stories and funny anatomical descriptions and I felt able to relax and join in the laughter - although I was careful to do so discreetly. Then there followed some more fun stuff, with plenty of allusions to sexual gratification, and I even began to feel (marginally and incidentally) included. I should have guessed, however, that the journey was not going to be all easy going. It wasn’t long before it started to get tough, with detailed descriptions of physiological and medical intimacies being aired to the nodding, knowing approval of all around me. These are issues which men will so often choose to ignore, either on the grounds that they are not our concern, or that they detract from the allure of the object of our desire.

I was now feeling uncomfortable and even a little queasy, but there was no chance of an anonymous, early exit and so I was obliged to sit tight and take it like a man - and that turned out to be the nub of the problem: being a man. What followed was a section detailing the tragically awful brutality inflicted on women by men- past, present and future. It may be the case that the few men present could not be held personally responsible, yet the collective guilt hung heavy on us as unwilling figureheads for the wanton perpetration of vile crimes. I found it impossible to hold my head up.

This was essentially an audience participation event and, whilst not qualified to join in with the cheering, the whoops of approval and the general sisterly togetherness, I could at least laugh along at the funny bits and, as a fellow human, identify with the reality of the suffering of countless millions of women. I always was thankful not to have been born a female and now I am even more so.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

A Step Too Far?

The gym is in a large, underground warehouse, which may be one reason why my subconscious mind associates the place with dungeons and general physical unpleasantness. Another reason could be the black, sinister, dangerous-looking pieces of equipment, most of which I have not yet tried for size. I have recently resorted to joining in classes instead, hoping that there will be both safety in numbers and some role-models to help elevate my personal achievement goals.

Another cause for concern might be that Teacher has had an MR scan on her knee and told us that an operation will be required to fix two ligaments and to scrape something or other. She is very nervous about the operation and anxious about being out of action for an indefinite period. Whilst I empathise with her dilemma, I also fear for my own future. Is this the fate of those who over-indulge in physical activities? Her claim that her knee was injured in an (unspecified) accident on Copacabana beach could, of course, be true but it is of little comfort, since I have recently signed up for her Brazilian Body Sculpt classes (not that I am anticipating spectacular results) and I do not want to end up hospitalised as a consequence.

The most likely cause of knee injury for me (outside of the South Americas) is actually the step - that plastic platform which is used in the musical movement routines to strengthen leg muscles. I have no trouble getting onto or off from the step, but I am in extreme danger of falling over it since I have not yet co-ordinated my movements with those of the others in the class - or even with the music. I have tried to learn by example and follow my classmates, but the walls of mirrors reflect so many different people in so many varying positions and states of distress that I end up confused, not knowing my left from my right. I have tried concentrating on following just one of the others, but soon became conscious that I was staring at them too intently and, since they are all female, decided not to pursue this plan. Teacher cannot help, since she is temporarily excused ‘step’ so I flounder on, bewildered by the complexity of routines devised in the cause of keeping fit.

Teacher leads many different classes so she often has to ask us to remind her about what we did in the last session. Mostly we say “inner thighs”, since that is one of the more painful routines, in the hope that she will say “OK, then this week we will do bums”. I realise this is not in the true spirit of self improvement, but at least it brings levity to the sessions and is better than doing “abs”. In any case, sometimes she is suspicious that we might be lying so “inner thighs” it is.

This morning, on my way to the mirror, in search of any noticeable traces of body sculpting, I became aware of a pain. If I were a footballer, or a cricketer, I suppose I might have a claim to be suffering from what I believe they call a groin strain. Since I am neither, let’s just say that I have a pain in the inner thigh region. She probably won’t believe me, though.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Museum Piece

Lack of planning is generally thought to be a bad thing and is the origin of sayings such as “They couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery”. I would argue, however, that there is a case for a degree of laxity in planning ahead and that minimal preparation can allow the opportunity for serendipity in one’s life, as well as removing the stress that can result from rigid timetabling.

My recent visit to the Manchester Museum may be a case in point. Admission is free of charge but, as I was about to pass through the open door, a security person ambled by, mug in hand on her way to chat with the shop staff. “We’re not open yet. Another 10 minutes”. She continued towards her rendezvous, leaving me with an unexpected moral dilemma: whether to walk into the museum anyway, or to play by the rules and loiter, needlessly, in the lobby. Now this was a situation which would never have arisen had I troubled myself with a little research into the opening hours, but it turned out to have its upside. I diverted into an adjoining room housing a temporary exhibit of Chinese artefacts and, apparently, not subject to the same opening times.

It was a small but diverse and interesting collection, from which I learned two things in particular. One was that the Chinese really did invent a lot of stuff thousands of years before Westerners had even thought of painting on cave walls. The other thing I learned was that they left nothing to chance (remarkable given their present day reputation as gamblers). One of the displays showed a whole set of model furniture for the deceased to take to the next world for use as a pattern to make real furniture for their new life there. In another display there was a ceramic plaque covered in writing which was to act as a sort of passport to hand to the government officials who were expected to be waiting for them in the afterlife. Here in the West we have a saying – “nothing is certain in life but death and taxes” and we can rely on the onset of the former closing the account on the latter. For the unfortunate Chinese of antiquity, however, there was no escape from either. What must it be like to take your tax file with you when you go? It seems they left nothing to chance and were thus both masters and victims of their own forward planning.

On leaving that room I was drawn to an old fashioned office off to the side. Seen through the panes of glass in the oak-framed partition, its furnishings appeared fusty, as if from another age - perhaps 1930- and the haphazard collection of peculiar objects inside was irresistibly intriguing. The brass doorknob could not be turned so I concluded that it must not yet be open. The sign over the door proclaimed this to be the ‘Bureau of the Centre for the Study of Surrealism’ and I longed to gain entry. As it turned out though, this fascinating corner of the museum was an exhibit in itself – a piece of installation art by Mark Dion – observable only through the window panes.

I finally did get into the main museum, only to discover another consequence of my failure to plan ahead. It was the half-term holiday, and conscientious parents from all around had brought their noisy, over-excited children to be entertained and/or educated. Since this was not conducive to my relaxed morning exploring antiquities I headed for the exit, stopping only at the beetle and bug department to note the jewel-like qualities of the pinned out specimens, and to ponder why they don’t look creepy at all when they are immobilised. Only later did I reflect upon the unexpected, small but entertaining pleasures gained from having had no methodical plan for the visit to the museum.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

A Jazz Standard

Ladybarn, a suburb of Manchester, is a classic example of Victorian urban planning situated five miles from the city centre and bang on the railway line built to ferry people to and from work. “So what?” you may say; but, for me, the place brings memories of a personal crisis I experienced when I used to live there back in the early 80’s. It wasn’t an acute crisis, but important nevertheless to my personal development. At or around that time my musical palate was beginning to dull. The thrill of rock guitar solos was wearing thin, my attempts to dance convincingly to reggae were looking desperate and even ‘the blues’ could only hold my attention for about 10 minutes at a time. I began to seek alternative stimulation and excitement in classical concerts, but found myself distracted by watching the musicians instead of listening to the performance. I went to the opera but found that I was similarly distracted and, in any case, just could not do that ‘suspension of disbelief’ thing.

And so it was that I decided to try jazz. This had much to do with ease of access to Ladybarn’s main attraction, The White Swan, a.k.a. The Mucky Duck, a pub which hosted jazz sessions in the club room upstairs every Friday night. There, for a modest, single-figure entrance fee (and with even more modest numbers in attendance), I was initiated into the world of the mainstream jazz quartet. The style and repertoire that night and subsequently was not adventurous, but it was the skills and sensitivities of the musicians that impressed and set me off on an exploration of the myriad forms of jazz, liberating me, at last, from the tyranny of the music ‘industry’ and providing me with an endless seam of musical pleasures.

Friends of mine still live in that same part of town. They have seen the local cinema close, the shops turn into food take-aways, the estate agents scramble to squeeze every last penny of profit from each square foot of property and, now, the pubs starting to be boarded-up. But The White Swan is fighting back with its secret weapon. Not good beer, not smart new furnishings or a welcoming, jovial atmosphere; not a well-priced food menu of classics-with-a-modern-twist, but with jazz! The same jazz that wasn’t popular before. The same jazz that had to be hidden, upstairs in the club room, lest anyone should hear it. I went to meet my friends there last Friday evening. “We must help them out!” they pleaded. The entrance fee was even less than it had been in 1982 - and it included a raffle ticket. The prize was a bottle of wine and, for a while, it looked as if I had a 100% chance of winning it. Then the other bloke turned up. My friends then arrived, further diluting my chances. Not only had I become lonely by then, but had recklessly ignored their advice not to buy the draught beer, so they took pity and bought me something potable.

We really enjoyed the music. The standard of playing was high and the individual skills of the musicians well-balanced. They played many of the comforting, familiar old standards and introduced them with one or two of the familiar old jokes. (Pedants of punctuation are particularly fond of Cole Porter’s song being introduced thus: What is this thing called, love?).

There is no denying, however, that ambience suffers when the audience is thin so, musing on how numbers might be boosted, we came up with a few marketing suggestions.
For the lads in the band: 1) Remember that audiences deserve respect too, so do try to dress for the occasion. 2) Remember that audiences like to have a good time, so do try to look as though you enjoy performing.
And for the leader: 1) Communication with your audience is about more than playing your instrument well, so do try to make eye contact while mumbling at them in between numbers. 2) Learn some new jokes.
And for the publican: 1) Secrecy is rarely an effective marketing tool. 2) Neither is watery ale.

When all these suggestions have been considered and acted upon, I hope and expect there will be a revival in fortunes for both the local pub and its worthy bands of jazz musicians.