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.