Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Christmas Question

It seems to me there was a time when everyone I knew celebrated Christmas with eternally fixed beliefs, customs and menus - but that was back in the days before cultural diversity became the norm. The few non-Christians in my circle then generally kept a low profile as the party rumbled on without them. Lately, however, their number has grown, swollen by ranks of atheists, agnostics and vegetarians - all bent on questioning the basis, abjuring the symbolism and rejecting the customary festive fare - while still taking advantage of a few days of sanctioned idleness and self-indulgence. In order to take a step back from this cultural confusion I decided to spend this Christmas in Istanbul.

In a city so used to visitors and with a population estimated at 15 million there was bound to be some recognition of the great Western knees-up - decorated trees in hotel lobbies and inflatable Santas in a few of the shops - but really it was business as usual even though there appeared to be very few tourists rattling around the extensive infrastructure dedicated to serving them. Streets full of shops, cafes, restaurants and stalls were open but bereft of customers, their owners prowling the pavements, relentlessly entreating us with their impressive multi-lingual pitches. I had hoped to blend anonymously into the general population so as to experience the subtle everyday pleasures of being in the city but I underestimated the power of small differences to betray my identity and, despite my attempt to avoid dressing as a tourist, the natives instantly recognised me as a foreigner and homed in remorselessly. My polished leather shoes, especially, were an obvious target for the hundreds of shoe-shine boys. I soon learned to avoid eye-contact with them.

But the most precious thing that Istanbul possesses, its history, needs no selling. It is a product of its location and is everywhere evident in its buildings, its customs and its activities - none of which can be fully appreciated without some rudimentary knowledge of events from the time Constantinople was founded as a Christian city-state in 330 AD, through the time it fell to Islamic forces in 1453, subsequently becoming known as Istanbul, and to the creation of the secular state of Turkey in 1928.  All of this story is to be found within the city and is there to inform our view of modern world events. And, while I may have eschewed the outward appearance of a tourist, I did fully embrace the historical sightseeing opportunities, picking off the monuments one by one.

But, while I never became blasé about the quantity and quality of the sites, I did soon begin to suffer a growing sense of outrage at their very existence. It started in the Harem of the Topkapi Palace when my admiration for the architectural and decorative skills of the builders gave way to consideration of the purpose for which the place existed - a gilded prison where people were enslaved for the personal pleasure of its creators, the Sultans. Even in the lavish sacred buildings, the churches and mosques, I experienced a similar revulsion at the way in which the established authorities used them to justify their position and control their subjects with the collusion of organised religion and its ability to subjugate the minds of men.

But my spirits were lifted at the last stop, the Basilica Cistern, a great underground reservoir built by the Emperor Justinian around 550 AD to supply fresh water to the citizens. The astonishing magnificence of the work and its antiquity make it a classic example of Roman engineering but what I most admired was that it was a civil engineering project and, as such, was of material benefit to the otherwise deprived population.

Suitably cheered I emerged into the cold, sunlit square and made straight for the nearest shoe-shine boy. I overpaid him with a generosity born of empathy for the oppressed people of the last two millennia, then pointed my gleaming feet in the direction of the airport and contemplated the fleeting time-span of the Christmas pudding.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Sleeping Ambitions

Historical research shows that, before industrialisation and its consequent introduction into society of regular jobs, artificial light and alarm-clocks, people would normally have had a ‘first sleep’ and a ‘second sleep’ separated, in the middle of the night, by an hour or two of refreshed, wakeful activity which, although limited in scope due to a lack of modern conveniences such as lighting and heating, would surely have been compatible and harmonious with life’s then natural rhythms.

Those of us who experience this ancient pattern of sleep nowadays (for it is not extinct) may not recognise it’s provenance but can certainly benefit from embracing it, especially as we have many more options for intermission activities, some of which might involve actually getting out of bed. The modern-day torment of nocturnal bouts of agonising over small details and assorted trivia while all the time willing ourselves to go back to sleep can be banished in favour of the two-sleep system: go with the flow and use the time between sleeps profitably.

During one of these sleep-intermissions I was mulling over the newspaper advert placed by MI6 for the position of Spy. The traditional title is Intelligence Officer but, now that they have decided on a broader, more democratic approach to recruitment by adopting the populist terminology, I imagine that their HR department will be overwhelmed by spurious applications from all sorts of unsuitable individuals. In my case, however, I could see that my key qualities of perception and discretion might be invaluable to MI6.

In fact my conviction grew as I noted that the advert was carefully worded so as not to exclude any applicant (apart from non-British nationals) and that there was no stipulation of experience, qualifications, age or gender. They even emphasised a need for operatives of all kinds and at all levels – not just the gun-toting, photogenic athletic type. Perhaps this indicates an ominous shortage of Officers and desperation to encourage every wannabe to apply, in which case they would surely jump at the chance to employ someone of my experience and maturity: after all, I have seen every one of the Bond films. Before drifting into my second sleep period I determined I would take the matter up the next day.

I should have made a note because I completely forgot about it until some days later when I read about another piece of research, the implications of which could seriously strengthen my application for the position of Spy in Residence, Central Manchester. Researching linguists at Manchester University claim to have discovered that more languages are spoken in Manchester than in any other place - except New York City. Quick as a shot I deduced that there must, therefore, be an awful lot of foreigners living here and that, simply by hanging out and listening in to their conversations, I could garner masses of information which would keep my back-office team fully employed sifting and filing for years. It’s true that I am not fluent in any of the 153 languages spoken by the foreigners but it’s also true that most of them speak English as well so it shouldn’t be a problem. My next step was to visit the MI6 website and take the on-line aptitude test, as recommended, prior to beginning my application process.

I was a little disappointed when I failed it, although I had no right to be surprised: it did require a precise and timely recall of vital facts and figures, whereas my speciality is actually the opposite - a vague and untimely recall of non-vital (some would say inconsequential) facts and figures.

How could I have so misinterpreted the brief and my ability to fill it? Maybe I should just sleep on it next time.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Philosophy Lite

  Some of the statistics released this week from the National Census reinforced the widespread preconception that our country is being overrun by immigrants who come here to take our jobs and houses and, instead of being grateful, introduce their foreign cultural mores and upset our established and perfectly honed way of life. Any number of anecdotes can be conjured up to illustrate this story and to confirm the stereotypes associated with it.

But we like stereotypes because they help us make sense of life: they tidy everything - and everybody - into clearly labelled, instantly recognisable pigeonholes. We do like to know precisely which group we belong to and how it differs from others so that we can be confident in our dealings with them. And when something or someone conforms to stereotype, it is comforting to know that we were right all along.

With this in mind I attended a public lecture entitled " Divergence and Convergence: Traditional Chinese and Western Modes of Thinking" given by Dr. Keekok Lee, Professor of Philosophy. I have long been aware that, in some fundamental but esoteric way, the Chinese approach to life is 'different' from ours so I took this opportunity to gain some understanding of how and why.

Although I took my seat feeling smugly pleased with my open-minded attitude, I was inevitably confronted by my own prejudices. To start with, the Professor was not a middle aged, pipe-smoking man but a tiny, grey-haired lady! Then there was the fact that she was Chinese, which obviously accounted for her diminutive physical presence; my observation that she was bizarrely dressed, proving, beyond doubt, that her mind was on a higher plane; the impression that she gave of being slightly batty, which always accords with professorship; and her self-confessed technical incompetence vis-à-vis Powerpoint which, as we all know, is only to be expected of an old-fashioned book-worm. All the boxes were ticked.

And then, with a set of props comprising three projected 'slides', a pair of chopsticks and a glass, half-full or (crucial to the argument) half-empty, she put her case. Here it is in summary:

  • The Chinese started thinking in an organised way 8,000 years ago - long before the West.
  • Chinese logic is based on the principles of Yin-Yang or I-Ching which both assert that reality has variable positions: nothing is simply black or white. This she somehow likened to the movement of chopsticks, one of which is held firm while the other moves against it.
  • Westerners only got started 2,000 years ago when Aristotle popped up. Greek philosophers initiated a system of thought which is binary: something either is or is not. But how do you then describe the glass containing water? It must surely be either one or the other. It cannot be both. Duh!
  • But the Danish Physicist Nils Bohr proved, in the 1940's, that some atoms exist as both particle and wave simultaneously: ie they are neither one nor the other - they are both!
  • Since then the West has been converging towards the Chinese model (which, of course, has been reassuringly correct all along) and has contrived a new name for it - “Fuzzy Logic”.

The enlightenment I seek is elusive: as of now I remain inclined towards the stereotype of the Chinese thought process being evasive and duplicitous. Lacking an appetite for in-depth study, however, the best argument I can muster is the following succinct précis of the development of the Western thought system in recent times:
 "to do is to be" - Kant
"to be is to do" - Nietzsche
 "do be do be do" – Sinatra
which clearly demonstrates divergence as opposed to convergence: or, perhaps, a schizophrenic breakdown suffered as a result of this whole argument.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Moving with the Times

My partner's new phone finally arrived - an event which, coinciding with the end of the year and the need to buy a new desk-calendar for our joint activities triggered the idea that we ought to harness the power of technology by diarising in The Cloud instead of on paper. The perceived advantage of this would be to give each of us access, at all times, to all three diaries: hers, mine and ours. A mere two days after starting the process I (and it was I) managed to jump all the hurdles - the passwords, domains and internet identities placed in the way of fulfilment - and to connect us at last to the wireless wizardry of simultaneously synchronised calendars. The word ‘phone’ hardly does justice to such a remarkable device.

Our new diary system should ensure we act in unison when it comes to events such as the extraordinary cluster of 'significant' birthdays presently overwhelming us. The ages 40, 50, 60 and 70 have been sneaking up on various of our friends and relatives, bringing in their wake dismay, consternation, distress – and a few parties. It's tough, as is well known, to pass through a decade barrier: with the possible exceptions of 10 and 20 they are unwanted milestones along life's highway and so we empathise with those whose turn it is to encounter them. Less well appreciated are the niceties of acknowledging these markers. Some choose to keep it quiet, while others brazen it out. But suppose, for example, a party is proposed: then what sort of arrangement would delight guests of differing ages and backgrounds? Should it be themed or freestyle? Fancy dress or casual? At home or at a venue? And how do you send invitations? By snail-mail, email or publicly via Facebook?

But with several parties attended so far - and more to come - I am enjoying the experience of all the different formats. There was just one disappointment: the party that ran out of my preferred tipple - red wine. So I was delighted, during a recent stay in London, to be invited to a tasting of wines from a particular Côte de Beaune producer. The preliminary lecture concerning the merits of chalk ridges, terroir and south-facing slopes and incorporating anecdotes about the Domaines and their owners heightened my anticipation so that the first taste of wine was guaranteed to please – even though it was white (well, yellow actually – but that is an etymological mystery, in the same way as the origin of the word ‘phone’ will be one day). The next three whites, however, convinced me that the wines were seriously good and I became excited at the prospect of the reds. But they didn’t live up to my expectations: I was disappointed by their lack of substance and their harsh tannins (Pinot Noir is so prone to variable weather conditions) and I was obliged to wait until supper time for a decent bottle of something plumper, juicier and redder.

I was staying with a relative, whose patience I must have stretched many times with my particularities, but who still seemed genuinely pleased to accommodate me and, although she prefers to drink white wine, had thoughtfully laid in a bottle or two of red. But on the last night of my stay, having retired early to my bedroom with what remained in my glass, I stumbled and spilt it onto the white bedclothes. Distraught I rushed downstairs hopeful of finding some sort of remedy and, perhaps, forgiveness. "Oh, never mind" she said "I'll just stick it in the washer". The perfect host! Nevertheless I have since been thinking of cultivating a white wine palate.

I hear you can get professional tasting notes downloaded onto your phone, which could be useful when choosing from restaurant wine lists. And just imagine the tweets: “Quietly celebrating 70 with oysters + Puligny-Montrachet Les Referts 1er Cru Olivier Leflaive 2008”.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Outrageous Injustice!

Isn’t it marvellous how everything is online nowadays? It’s all so convenient, efficient and simple. Want to upgrade your phone? Just log in to your account, choose the model and it will be sent to your door. There’s no need to go to the shop for a humiliating encounter with a young man who knows more about phone technology than you ever will: no need to speak to a bothersome human at all. Thus seduced by the prospect of a comfortable, care-free experience, I logged on, sailed through the streamlined procedure and, soon after, received an email telling me that my new phone would be delivered on Friday between 10.37 and 11.37. My amazement at the sheer precision of the process was tempered, just a little, by scepticism. Was it possible that a man in a van could so precisely predict his arrival at my door?

My qualm was justified when, on Friday, the delivery failed to materialise. I waited patiently until 11.38 before resorting to the website in search of a number I could call. What I saw instead, however, was a cheeky message informing me that, since I was not at home, the delivery had not been possible. Now, I am well aware that the degree of outrage I felt on account of this was out of all proportion to the significance of the situation but, driven by a sense of deep injustice, I felt urgently compelled to tell someone that I had been at home during my allotted time-slot.

I found the phone number in an obscure section of the website and, calming myself so as not to sound unreasonable, called in hope of a sympathetic ear. But the recorded voice on the line was intent only on guiding me back to the website where, for a small fee, I would be able to rearrange the delivery at a time convenient to me. I now felt desperate to regale somebody with this tale of compounded injustice but, still capable of a degree of rational behaviour, I decided not to pursue the issue. Instead, I would leave it to the delivery people to resolve what was, in fact, their problem. Still, I spent the next few hours feeling disgruntled and unhappy.
The delivery did come eventually but it brought with it more problems which, ironically, can only be resolved by my visiting the shop and speaking to a real, live person. I am in no hurry.

 Meanwhile, in order to gain some perspective, I devoted a whole morning to the leisurely appraisal of an exhibition of the art, culture and politics of Mughal India. From their power base in Central Asia the dynastic Mughals swept south into India in 1526 and established an empire which, for about three hundred years, waxed and waned over the continent. Despite their Islamic tradition, the Mughal emperors were relatively tolerant of the predominantly Hindu indigenous religion. They cultivated a sophisticated lifestyle for themselves, encouraging painting and poetry, while building beautiful palaces, impressive forts and a bureaucracy to manage their diverse empire.

But after an hour or so of closely examining colourful, intricate (and quite small) paintings I began to feel uneasy. The objects themselves are wonderfully executed but the subject matter is relentless: a succession of emperors and their entourages, decked out in fabulously rich costumes, idealised as super-humans and lording it over the rest of humanity. I could feel my sense of injustice rising and, when I got to the display showing the Emperor Akbar’s ledgers, it went critical. There was documented how everything grown, harvested and sold was taxed to pay for his pompous, self-important lifestyle. He may have been a patron of the arts but he cared not for the poverty, ignorance and deprivation which were the lot of his subjects.

Which goes to show that injustice is nothing new: I’ll just have to get used to it I suppose.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Electing to Vote

A new Member of Parliament for Manchester was recently elected and, during the run up to the election, I happened to see a couple of old documentary films about the City. The first was a monochrome public information film commissioned by the City Council in 1946. Its message was "Now that the war is over we are going to knock down the slums, build new housing, fix the infrastructure and stop polluting the air". It was backed up by quaint, cardboard cut-out graphics (state-of-the-art at the time) to illustrate the statistics of taxation and spending.

The film was widely distributed to cinemas in the region, as well as being shown to MPs at Westminster, and is now preserved as an historical document. It is not without artistic merit, thanks to the talents of its 'bohemian' director, but what lingers for me is the visual impact of something that was taken for granted at the time - the grimy condition of all the buildings. Apart from the slums, many of them had been grandly conceived and splendidly executed, yet all of them appeared utterly miserable in their overcoats of soot.
A second film, independently made and shot in the neighbouring borough of Salford in 1968, depicted life in the slums twenty two years later. Not much seemed to have changed - except that the filth could now be seen in colour. I was transfixed especially by an intimate domestic scene in which a young couple, at home, bathed their four young children in a tin tub containing six inches of water laboriously heated over a gas stove in the lean-to masquerading as a kitchen. Meanwhile, not so far away and all around them, the 'summer of love' generation (myself included) basked in the sybaritic pleasures of sex and drugs and rock n roll, unaware or uncaring of their condition. How easy it is to lead a life blinkered from that of others.

These films proved to be apt viewing just prior to an election. Their evidence of the persistence of huge social inequalities over hundreds of years - despite the enormous wealth Britain had amassed during that time - was quite hard to comprehend. If you hadn't already got a political view on the subject it certainly would have helped pull one into focus. If you had, it served as a reminder that there is never room for complacency.

Meanwhile, at the hustings, there were twelve hopeful candidates - eleven of whom were either brave or foolish considering that just one party has held the seat ever since rain began to fall on Manchester. I was actually impressed by all of them as individuals. They uniformly professed honesty and integrity. Not one of them put forward an argument in favour of social inequality (so where it comes from is a mystery). All of them wanted a better life for everyone - except the Communist League candidate who, having long ago decided that the population comprises just two types - workers and bosses - would clearly have preferred the total elimination of the latter. In the event, out of an electorate of 91,692, he persuaded 64 people to vote for him.

I was impressed by the sensible arguments of the candidate for the People's Democratic Party - despite the fact that he was from Yorkshire - but, with only 71 votes, he got 7 fewer than the Monster Raving Looney Party - who do not have a sensible argument between them. I was also seduced by the Pirate Party candidate's enthusiastic exhortation to rid ourselves of the yoke of Big Brother but, on reflection, found it difficult to envision him as part of a credible government with grown-up ministers and so on.

So, the end result was a predictably massive win for the incumbent party. But the desperately low turnout (just 18% of the electorate) was an even more impressive triumph for apathy. Perhaps the turnout could be boosted at the next election by putting those films on general release a few weeks beforehand?

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Uncomfortable Zone

We were flattered recently by an invitation to a friend’s birthday party - not just an un-structured free-for-all in a house ill-suited for mass entertaining, a make-do arrangement with the kitchen turned into an uncomfortable, standing-room-only bar, the dining table spread with cling-filmed plates of buffet food and the lounge cleared for a late finale of drunken dad-dancing – but a thoughtfully organised event set in a properly resourced function room and featuring a grown-up, seated supper. We marked our diaries immediately and resolved the inevitable ‘drinking and driving’ dilemma well in advance so that we could look forward to an evening with our much-loved host and assorted friends. There remained just one minor concern: we were all required to take part in a session of ballroom dancing.

Now, we are all familiar with the theory of ‘comfort-zones’ i.e. we like to be in them but we know it’s good for us to get out of them from time to time (presumably, for therapeutic reasons). Nevertheless there’s no denying that it feels good to be doing only what lies within your own capabilities and is part of your own nature. That way lies confidence and self-assurance. Not that I am averse to formal dancing: it’s just that I don’t know the moves and am prone to freeze up on my partner or, worse, do damage to her feet. Whereas our host is an accomplished dancer, quite comfortable with gliding through waltzes or swinging her hips to complex Latin rhythms, some of us lack practise, confidence or inherent ability: in some cases all three. I braced myself for an excursion out of my comfort zone and into someone else's.

My limited experience of formal dancing is defined by the lessons I had as a seventeen-year old boarder at an all-boys school. The curriculum there was rigidly orthodox and, since it was run by a religious order, the cultural ethos was much the same. In the year prior to our release, however, a token effort was made to introduce us to some of the social skills we might usefully employ in the future pursuit of suitable wives. Dancing was one of these and weekly evening classes were duly mandated. Of course it was deemed too risky to co-operate them with the nearby all-girls school in case scandal might ensue so, during the lessons, we were obliged to take turns at impersonating females. In this way the school succeeded not only in making formal dancing appear farcical but also in destroying any chance we might have of acquiring a wife in a ballroom. On leaving school, having abandoned hope of gaining close contact with girls by the formal method, I reverted to free-form dance.

On the night of the party I was called to account. I need not have worried about being conspicuously incompetent as it turned out: others shared that distinction. And we were not left simply to sink or swim: our host had engaged professional instructors to guide us through the steps. Their method is tried and tested. First they show you a short sequence of steps, forward left back and...Then another, forward right left and... And then put them together, forward left back and forward right left and... After a few goes at this they introduce the tricky part, sideways turn and... Then, just when everyone appears to have mastered the entire sequence, they play the music. And everything falls apart.

I suppose there eventually comes a point at which you can stop mouthing instructions while staring at your feet and just let the rhythm guide you. But I didn't get there that night and, by the following day, I was in a distinctly uncomfortable zone - nursing a sore sacroiliac joint on account of the Cha-Cha-Cha.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Swimming in History

There was a period in British history when Queen Victoria's name was associated with just about everything: not only were parts of foreign continents named after her but also, all around Britain, streets, parks, squares, schools, fountains and institutions bore the name 'Victoria'. Every enterprise sought to bask in the reflected glory of the brand 'Monarch of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India' - without having to pay a penny for the publicity. Here in Manchester her name was even pressed into service to impress the great unwashed when, in 1906, the City Council opened the very splendid Victoria Baths, a grand building which contained three swimming pools, personal baths, a laundry and a Turkish steam room - built in the finest materials and decorated lavishly in the style of the day.

Victoria herself had no hand in the enterprise: it was an embodiment of civic duty at a time when the municipality was extremely rich and the majority of its inhabitants were extremely poor. But circumstances have changed since those times and Victoria Baths was closed in 1993. The population of the vicinity had long since acquired its own bathrooms and washing machines and swimming pools were to be found elsewhere. The building was locked up and public funds were redirected to other amenities. Nevertheless there was a popular movement to prevent its closure and there remains a vigorous campaign to reopen and restore it.

The supporters, however, have an intractable problem: on the face of it they just have to find a lot of money but ultimately they face the fact that Victoria Baths  has become an unnecessary facility in an altered landscape. Even if a change of use were feasible its location remains problematic. There are examples of successful rescue attempts elsewhere - in East London for example - where old buildings have been saved and recycled. But East London is a dense urban environment with a pressing need for buildings, a thriving local economy, proximity to vast wealth and a high proportion of creative inhabitants. Poor, lovely old Victoria Baths is not so fortunately situated and I fear it may be doomed for where it is, not saved for what it is. Without a population to cherish it no building can survive.

This story is far from unique: such buildings disappear with the slow inevitability of lost causes everywhere; buildings that are magnificent, beautiful or remarkable; conceived in times of need or plenty, with noble intent and generosity of spirit. Such structures are cherished by the people who realise that once they are gone they can never be replaced. It is understandable that they should fight rearguard actions.

All buildings contain the history of their conception. The purpose of Victoria Baths may have been utilitarian but its richly decorated style was typical of the time and place. By contrast a recently built municipal swimming pool is likely to be a soundly engineered facility housed in a cost-efficient but unremarkable building called a Leisure Centre situated on the edge of town and surrounded by an asphalt car park.

But one new swimming pool that bucks the trend and strives to make a grand and elegant statement is Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre  at London's Olympic Park. Built to impress, a tour de force of the alliance between design and technical expertise, it signifies a return to magnificence for its own sake.

I sincerely hope I may not see the day when bottle-green, art-nouveau ceramic tiles, stripped from a demolished Victoria Baths, are on sale at bric-a-brac stalls and antique markets; nor the day when the Aquatics Centre becomes just another venue for stadium-style concerts. But in a hundred years from now there may well be a "Save Our Aquatics Centre" campaign - and who could blame them?


Saturday, 3 November 2012

Stormy Weather

For the past few days, in large swathes of this city, the 3G cellphone network run by one of the biggest operators has been malfunctioning. Your phone will ring but, when you answer, you can't hear a thing. When this happens it is at first obviously perplexing, soon becomes understandably irritating and, in the end, inexplicably embarrassing. The bloke in the phone shop is of the opinion that it might take them a week to fix it, which is a 'disaster' for at least one of my acquaintances whose arrangements are dependent on phone calls rather than emails or txt mssgs.

The CEO of the network was on this morning's TV news - not, ironically, to talk about the malfunction, but promoting the imminent launch of the latest, more advanced 4G phone technology. In fact he didn't mention our little problem and I had to resist the urge to shout at the telly in outrage. But this isn't about to turn into a luddite, flat-earthist rant about the failings of communications technology which, although imperfect, is a lot better than what we had before.

At the beginning of October I happened to be standing beside a small oak tree which boasted a brass plaque declaring that it had been planted in memory of 250,000 trees that were lost in London during four hours of exceptionally stormy weather on 16th October 1987. The north of England was unaffected (as I recall) but the national news media (based in London) brought us the images and statistics of destruction swiftly and comprehensively. I have to admit that, from a distance of 200 miles, I found it difficult to empathise fully with the distress of those closely affected - despite the best efforts of the press to convey the severity of the situation.

Twenty five years later the news media are full of images and stories concerning Sandie, the much bigger storm that has caused extensive damage, disruption and loss of life in and around New York - another place seething with news teams. Again it's not in my back yard but this time I found it easier to empathise with the victims. Why? Because of cellphone coverage. Professional reportage has now been augmented by amateur video recordings which, with their unscripted soundtracks (mostly, in this case, comprising the exclamation "Oh my God!") lend a cinema vérité piquancy which resonates with ordinary, everyday experience.
There are now more cellphones than there are humans on the planet (I can't vouch for this statistic but I am inclined to accept it given that I have personally owned at least a dozen) which benefits another aspect of news reporting: there is more coverage and exposure of "obscure" events. The 'Arab Spring' is the most obvious example of how we are now able to get news that, just twenty five years ago, would not have come to our attention as immediately, as prolifically or with quite the same, unfiltered impact.
Sandie is the latest example. The storm had previously wreaked havoc and devastation on Caribbean islands but coverage of that was incidental to the New York story: Caribbean islands, besides hosting fewer commercial news teams, also have a miniscule influence on the world's economy. Despite this we did get some news thanks to the cellphone. Irritating and embarrassing it may be, but the cellphone is lifting us out of the stone-age of information dissemination.

As a postscript, an experiment in some remote Ethiopian villages has fascinating repercussions. Children, illiterate and with no knowledge of the English language, were given tablet computers. Neither the tablets nor the programmes were modified and no instruction was offered. The speed with which they subsequently learnt to use the computers was astonishing - to the extent that it calls into question the comparable efficacy of the traditional classroom/teacher/group-of-pupils model.

It's annoying when it goes wrong but today's technology compensates with a bonus: freedom of information.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

A Normal Week

L. S. Lowry's vision of the post-industrial landscape of Salford and Manchester is a dominant and distinctive feature of many of his better-known paintings: bleak but beautifully painted, it is unflinchingly direct, almost brutal - and yet engagingly human in its evocation of time and place.

The largest ever assembled collection of his paintings is currently on show at the eponymous Lowry Centre at Salford Quays where I saw it before it moves to the Tate in London. I travelled in a smart, new yellow and grey tram which, from its elevated track, gave unimpeded views of tidied-up canals, newly-built apartment blocks, shimmering glass office buildings and small but determinedly allocated patches of greenery - all so different from what the artist saw in his time. Even the Lowry building itself, a quirky assemblage of glass, steel and aluminium amalgamated in such a way as to be striking rather than pleasing to the eye, would be alien to him. He died relatively recently (1976) but there were no buildings like it in, or near, his home town during his lifetime.

But the exhibition is an opportunity to appreciate that Lowry's artistic scope was greater than is popularly perceived. There are bewitching seascapes, haunting portraits and, later, some strangely abstract landscapes. We learn that, having lived alone for 40 years, he acknowledged that a sense of loneliness pervades much of his work. There are even a few erotic pictures - again unsurprising, given his bachelor status and the collection of pre-Raphaelite portraits of luscious women that adorned his bedroom walls. What is tantalising, however, is the implication that he made many more erotic pictures and that his estate has edited the display and restricted what we may see. It would be interesting (if a little prurient) to see more.

Another 'edited' character currently in the spotlight is Patrick Leigh Fermor, a self-taught , self-made and remarkably brave adventurer and author. He set out from London at the age of 18 and walked across Europe to Constantinople, with barely any money and just a few introductions: and that was just the start of many adventures which included war-time heroics, more travelling and a distinguished writing career. Fermor died last year at the age of 96. The author of his biography had been contracted to write it some 15 years earlier but enjoined not to publish until after his death in order, it appears, to preserve a few reputations. Given his prolific sexual encounters this was probably a very practical way of avoiding a few  'upsets'. Perhaps more will be revealed in the future.

By the time I got around to reading A Time of Gifts, his dashing, romantic account of his epic first journey, I was past the age at which I might have been persuaded to emulate his daredevil approach to life. Given my track record I would never have done so anyway - but that didn't stop me being envious of Fermor's all-or-nothing, gung-ho assault on life which brought him riches in the form of diverse experience, risky travel adventures, exotic relationships and lovers galore. These experiences he converted into memorable writing which delivers a vivid account of the recent past.

Mr. Lowry, on the other hand, led a life which I would not have relished for myself: he lived with his mum until she died, then lived the rest of his life alone; he never travelled abroad and he continued to be employed as a rent collector even after his paintings began to sell. Yet his imagination transcended the everyday and enabled him to escape from the temporal hum-drum. His doleful, detailed imagery evokes people and places as memorably as does the writing of Fermor.

When, on a wet Wednesday, I regard the work of these two men it reassures me to note that whether daily life is dull or exotic matters not so much as the expression of it.


Saturday, 20 October 2012

Coping with Disapointment

I was about seven when, in my best handwriting, I sent a postcard to the BBC's Uncle Mac requesting that he play a record for me on Children's Favourites. I then sat expectantly by the radio every Saturday morning for at least two weeks. But he completely ignored my request and left me deflated, disillusioned and out of pocket (on account of the postage stamp). It was my first conscious realisation that life could be a little disappointing - an experience which was soon to be reaffirmed by a series of similar events: like the revelation that my best friend had another best friend; Santa's failure to bring me the bike I thought I deserved and the discovery that there was a bigger school to go to once I had left the small one.

But to speak of shattered dreams or psychological traumas would be to exaggerate the significance of these setbacks: they may have been heartbreaking at the time but they served as an introduction to what was to come. They were the vanguard of life's tribulations and, if I were to survive the onslaught, I would need to wipe my snivelling nose, pull up my socks and prepare myself for some proper, grown-up disappointments. Despite this early mental preparation, however, I continued to experience feelings of dejection - such as when my exam results were poor, my hopes of becoming a rock-star were unfulfilled or my letters to The Times went unpublished. And so it eventually became clear that I ought to adopt one or more of the 'coping mechanisms' which I had begun to identify in human behavioural patterns.

Stoicism - indifference to pleasure or pain - is one of them: it works rather like the "force-fields" which sci-fi writers find so useful except that, in this context, it shields one from the possibility of emotional upset. The price of stoicism, however, is a tendency to stolidity - a morbid condition which is often found in dangerous sociopaths. This is an unattractive trait
Cynicism – the expectation that things will turn out badly - is a useful mechanism but here again there is a downside: pessimism soon becomes the default setting of cynics - and pessimistic people are not fun to be around.

Fatalism could also be used effectively as a 'coping mechanism': it requires one merely to submit to the inevitability of predetermination, thereby removing any sense of expectation. Attractive? Maybe - yet where is joy to be found in such a submissive doctrine? Where are the highs and lows of pleasure and pain, happiness and misery?

So how am I equipped to cope with my latest little disappointment? Earlier this year, when spring crept over the horizon, I got a little carried away with Nature's revival and decided to join in. I bought a beehut - a kind of nesting box for solitary bees - and installed it on the balcony in the optimum, south-west facing position. Bees, I had heard, were having a hard time and needed some help with suitable accommodation. Well now Autumn has come and the lavishly appointed beehut remains vacant. Disappointed is putting it mildly.

But, not wanting to waste the emotional and financial investment, I have decided to try for a tenant again next spring (assuming there will be some bees out there). Yesterday I brought the hut inside for refurbishment. Maybe I will paint the roof in a brighter colour, freshen the threshold and make it more welcoming. Putting up a 'vacant' sign, I know, will not work because bees can’t read but I could try surrounding it with colourful, flowering potted plants which may attract them.

Meanwhile I just hope there is some solitary bee out there who has spent the summer in an inferior hut, or sheltering miserably in some squalid, makeshift squat, regretting that they did not take up my generous offer.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

For Food Fans

The Manchester Food and Drink Festival is winding down – which means there will be no more food and drink until the next one. Not really, but kind-of. It aims to promote local restaurateurs and producers of ‘real food’, which is great except that it’s a bit of a tease. When the marquees come down the restaurants will still be there but the produce won’t. You may get to taste the best goat’s cheese ever but you won’t find it in the shops later. The chains of mini supermarkets that monopolise the city centre represent the antithesis of the Festival’s ethos and their uniform stock of convenience foods - ready meals, sandwiches, pseudo-bakery and bottles of industrially produced drinks – is, despite multiplicity and apparent diversity, uniformly bland. Whether they are catering to their customers’ needs or serving Mammon is a moot point but I once saw some token onions in a Spar shop which had waited so long for a customer that they had grown shoots.

The food and drink distribution system is designed to deliver bar-coded packages to outlets with fast turnover such as these and until the ‘real food’ producers get in on the act they are destined to sell their goods in specialist shops (which don’t exist) or farmers’ markets (which do exist but only on the third Sunday of some months and most likely when you are away for the weekend). And so the good stuff is only available, like Christmas markets, once a year. When the banners come down it’s back to industrialised food and drink again.

Before it was dismantled I made a point of heading for the cider tent where 25 varieties were on offer – a rarity in these parts. I was keen to indulge my taste for something very dry and still but the young man who had been left in charge (it was a quiet time of day) admitted that he knew nothing about cider: he was a flavoured vodka aficionado. He was, however, very generous with his employer’s stock offering me so many free samples that, by the time I was satisfied, I had forgiven his ignorance and had almost come to like him.

A few days later I was in the vicinity of Ludlow in Shropshire for some recreational walking along sections of Offa’s Dyke, the remains of an earth embankment which runs the entire length of the attractive borderlands between Wales and England. Considering the scale of this work there is very little documented history, although it was probably built sometime in the 8th Century by order of the Welsh King Offa as a boundary marker and/or defensive fortification against the acquisitive English. Walking the Dyke is enjoyable if you care for the countryside and the history which has formed it over the centuries.

There is also the advantage of being close to Ludlow which is remarkably interesting for a small market town on the way to nowhere in particular. It has many attractions: there is an impressive castle, quaint streets, historic buildings and friendly natives but these are mere sideshows to the main draw - it has more real food purveyors in its high street than exist in the whole of Greater Manchester. There are traditional butchers’ shops with rabbits and game hanging outside; a fishmonger’s where you can also sit and eat shellfish with Sancerre; delicatessens stuffed with local and exotic foods; a cavernous fruit and vegetable hall; a busy street-market and lots of cosy pubs overflowing with craft beers and ciders.

Ludlow is a permanent food festival, a theme park for foodies and, wonder of wonders, a farmers’ market which keeps regular hours!  And you don’t have to breach the Dyke to get there: it’s on the English side.  

Friday, 5 October 2012

Weather Report

“So many who desire immortality cannot think what to do on a wet Sunday afternoon.”  I don’t know the origin of this quote but I am struck by its perspicacity, particularly on a day like this, with a grey sky gifting its rain as it has so frequently of late. But then it is October and this is Britain.
Not so long ago, when the sun was shining on the London Olympics, a foreign visitor was asked by a TV reporter to voice his impression of our country. “When I think of Britain, I think of rain” is all he said. So, despite all the interesting stuff that has happened here over the centuries, all the history that has left a physical and cultural legacy of some note, it seems that a single aspect of our climate might be the dominant factor in our international standing.
There may be those who pity us for our precipitation but they don’t know the whole story. The fact is that our weather is neither rainy nor sunny, neither cold nor hot, neither one thing nor the other. It is variable and therein lies its allure. It’s not surprising that the British constantly talk about, complain about, remark upon, discuss, predict and pronounce upon the weather: it is an inexhaustible topic precisely because of its variety. Variety - “the spice of life”.
Imagine if it were otherwise: if, every morning, you could say to your neighbour “Lovely day, isn’t it?” Pretty soon your greeting would become inane since the word lovely has meaning only as a comparative adjective and what you would be saying, in effect, is “Normal day, isn’t it?” which would, of course, be pointless. I once worked as a teacher in a small town in Sudan. All around was desert and, during my year there, I recall only one cloudy day. On that day the students implored me to conduct the class outside so that they could enjoy the “fine” weather. Oh, how they longed for change, variety – a light shower or two.
But natives of every continent have developed ways to coexist with their weather and in Britain these are diverse. Many have adopted a ‘victim’ mentality which allows them to feel hapless, helpless, put-upon and pissed-upon: they do not have my sympathy. Others are stoical and are apt to appreciate long periods of rain as “good weather for ducks”; extended freezing temperatures as beneficial to killing off aphids; and more than two consecutive days of sunshine as “summer”: these are the splendid optimists. Then there are those who do their best to out-wit nature by spending time under infra-red lamps, taking two weeks holiday in a sunny country, buying time-shares on Mediterranean costas or, in extreme cases, emigrating: consider them quitters.
It has been remarked that, for a country which has no significantly high mountains, Britain has spawned an inordinate number of world-class mountaineers. The explanation is to be found in the fast-changing weather conditions under which they are obliged to hone their skills. Attitude, not altitude, creates good mountaineers.
I can’t say that I personally delight in being caught out in foul weather on mountain slopes which is why I take advantage of weather forecasting technology to make the most of the “lovely” days. And so it was on a recent walk with my partner in Cumbria, heading northwards up and past Goat’s Water to the head of the valley with the sun on our backs and the Old Man of Coniston to our right. We turned left at the head and strode along the tops of Dow Crag, Buck Pike and Brown Pike, the landscape spread all around and bathed in late summer sun. We admired the peaks to the north, peeped into Yorkshire to the east, scanned the Irish Sea to the west and headed down the long, glacial valley towards the expanse of glittering sands and shallow waters of Morecambe Bay. Days like that really do make immortality an attractive proposition.

Saturday, 29 September 2012


After a few, uncomfortable seconds of staring at each other she realised the need to prompt me: “It’s Amanda” she said.  “Sorry, Amanda, I've been out of the loop for a while”. I stalled while I searched my memory fruitlessly and, I am sure, visibly for some clue as to who she was. Our conversation didn't go any further. She took offence and disappeared deliberately into the conference-hall crowd.

Later, with the help of a colleague who had witnessed the encounter, I was able to recall who she was and set about justifying why I had failed to remember her: a few years previously I had known her but in a different context; we had met a few times in the course of business but communicated usually by phone; she was the sort of person who gave nothing away; we never really hit it off - and so on to excuse my lapse and to ease my embarrassment. “Never mind her, see you for a beer soon” said my colleague as we parted company. But I am still concerned about the incident.

I am also concerned about my colleague’s promise of “beer soon” which resonated with lack of commitment. It sounded too much like one of those well-intentioned but unfulfilled half-promises that we all experience, the classic being “you must come to dinner sometime” uttered by an acquaintance in the course of an occasional, unplanned encounter. Enough! Get your diary out, I say. Things don’t happen unless they are written down by at least two parties, thereby constituting an informal but nevertheless binding, contractual arrangement.

Actually I need a similarly binding method for my solo diary entries which comprise forthcoming events that I would like to attend – such as concerts, exhibitions, gigs, lectures and political meetings – so that I won’t get distracted and forget to go to them. I have too often missed an interesting or stimulating event for want of a simple aide memoire. But it is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and, if we substitute the word ‘disappointment’ for ‘hell’, the proverb describes my predicament. A solo diary entry does not constitute a contract with oneself: positive commitment is required, pre-purchased tickets or, better still, a willing companion. My reluctance to commit to either puts me in the same category as the casual acquaintance with his half-hearted invitation.

Nor does it stop there: alongside my diary of unattended events I keep a notebook in which I list all the books that I intend to read. Like my diary, however, it has very few ticks next to the entries. The obvious solution would be actually to buy the books rather than list them but I fear that would leave me with an unread pile on the table - and in the e-reader - testing my time-management skills to breaking point
Add into this the demands of the media, in all their modern, electronic forms, which clamour for attention 24-7, tempting me to explore stuff I didn’t know I needed to know and I have to ask myself if it’s time to start hacking away the undergrowth of superfluous information and set my mind on a single, identifiable goal.
At times like this I almost envy the lives portrayed in Downton Abbey where a simpler, less questioning approach is the default, thanks to the limited availability of information, and a good education might be acquired simply by reading a few ‘classic’ books.

Since, however, a return to the lifestyle of yesteryear is out of the question I might take the advice of the business guru who coined the aphorism KISS – keep it simple, stupid. If I harboured fewer ambitions I might even achieve one or two of them and if there were fewer people in my life I might be able to remember who they are.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Anxious French

The prospect of having to speak French makes me feel uncomfortable. In the case of any other language I might happily shrug my shoulders and admit to ignorance but with French it’s different: I harbour expectations of myself because I “learned” it at school. Unfortunately the rudiments which remain lodged in my brain are neither scant enough to pretend ignorance nor robust enough to see me through a conversation; and occasional visits to France over the years have been too brief to progress me beyond the ‘startled rabbit’ phase.

So it proved when my partner and I spent a few days in Marseille recently. After checking in at the hotel (late and without baggage due to missed connections) we went directly in search of an authentic French bar for our first dose of linguistic-cultural humiliation. From my very first utterance the patronne could tell I was never going to manage a conversation so she, acknowledging no English, resorted immediately to sign language in order to facilitate our requirements. It was done with a smile (we were valued customers as the place was not busy) but the transaction left me feeling like a boy buying drinks in a bar for the first time. Meanwhile three unsmiling, smoking men seated on the other side of the room glanced away from the TV and towards us a few times, as if hopeful of alternative entertainment: I like to think they were disappointed. Their smoking indoors was a bit of a surprise but, given Marseille’s reputation as a haunt of gangsters, I didn’t want to make a fuss about it.

The city is, of course, noted for more than its lowlife: there is its long history, its contribution to the Revolution, its multicultural population and its bouillabase. Nevertheless tourists are relatively few and many of them, disgorged from stop-over cruise ships, congregate around Vieux-Port which is consequently a place where some English is spoken. It was here we decided to treat ourselves to a slap-up dinner in the hope of avoiding embarrassing menu misunderstandings. But, contrary to our expectation, the restaurant we chose turned out to be a very traditional, family-run establishment where maman ran front of house without concession to any foreign ways. The consequent pantomime involved her bringing to our table whole fishes on silver platters, with price tags, so that we could make our choice merely by pointing and nodding.

For a little light relief afterwards we sought a bar en route to our hotel. Outside of Vieux-Port the bars were either deserted or closing up for the night – except for the ‘Bar Friendly’ - through the window of which we spied a dozen lively looking people. We stepped into a Harley Davidson themed interior where a middle-aged man, with ear rings, tattoos and thin, grey hair tied in a pony tail, was cheerfully serving the tables. But we soon discovered that, like the restaurant, this was very French territory. Fortunately there was one English-speaking customer who did us the favour of explaining that we had just crashed a party of old friends congregated for one of their regular evenings of poetry reading and folk songs. They had just finished their supper break and were about to recommence recitals.

There was no suggestion that we should leave and, besides, having just bought a bottle of wine we were not inclined to. Serious students of the French language could not have had a better practical lesson in vernacular French but at our level the experience was confined to a polite appreciation of the spirit of the event and its unique cultural tone. But at least we left feeling just a little less British.

Thus, little by little, my fear of French is receding. One thing I did eventually deduce was that the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is not as famous amongst Marseillais as I had at first thought: I had, for a while, been fooled by their peculiar pronunciation of the phrase Aye oui, oui. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Questioning History

My relatives, who have lived most of their lives in the Lincolnshire village of Tattershall, were quite unaware that it is also home to one of England’s most important colonies of newt, the rare Great Crested species, whose environment is actually more protected than their own. So why did they not know this?
It’s because of location-complacency syndrome (LCS), a condition I have identified through occasional observation that we are inclined to become so comfortable in our surroundings that eventually we accept them unquestioningly. Familiarity - with our neighbours, our circumstances and the day-to-day politics of our existence - leads us to a preoccupation with the here-and-now and a corresponding lack of curiosity for the substrata of history upon which our places are built.
For a small village, stranded in the middle of seemingly endless, flat fenlands, Tattershall has unexpected historical substrata. For example, alongside its unremarkable domestic buildings stands the 130 foot-high castle tower – built by Ralph, 3rd Lord Cromwell, Treasurer of England from 1433 to 1443 - considered by some to be the finest piece of medieval brickwork in England. Local residents may well take this exquisite building for granted but first-time visitors will be astonished when, after miles of architecture-free driving, they see a structure more than two storeys high looming at the side of the road. From the top of the tower, on a clear day, it is possible to see in the distance Lincolnshire’s two other tall buildings, Lincoln Cathedral and Boston Stump.
The defensive walls of the castle were eventually pulled down so as to remove any possible threat to Parliamentary rule - despite the fact that they were never built to withstand determined invasion. Nor was the location important strategically - until the 20th Century when the Royal Air Force claimed the surrounding land for airfields. Now the castle sits at the heart of a military defensive system and squadrons of latest generation Eurofighter Typhoon jets roar around its tower and quaint jousting-ground.
But why did Ralph Cromwell - who was, for a time, the second most powerful man in England - build such a magnificent, fortified residence in such an unlikely location, thinly populated as it was and surrounded by marshland? This, after all, was no weekend retreat, no holiday home or retirement idyll. This was a monumental statement of wealth and influence far away from London - the seat of his power. That was one of the questions I came away with despite listening attentively to the audio-guide. But you can’t ask questions of an audio-guide – and it’s no use asking the locals: they’ve got LCS.
The day after my visit to the castle I woke up to the sound of World War Two - the thrum of Spitfire engines, so familiar to schoolboys of my era. I imagined that the TV was tuned to a history channel showing monotone movies of the Battle of Britain but the reality was startling. I drew back the curtain and flinched as an actual, real-life Spitfire sped by, rolling over close enough for me to give the thumbs-up sign to the crew.
As I walked out that day, Spitfires and Typhoons criss-crossing the sky, I passed the remains of a college that Cromwell built, now tucked behind a bungalow, off the main road, beyond the 15th Century stone cross which marks the 12th Century charter given for the market. I was on my way to visit the huge collegiate church, with its important medieval features and the gravestone of celebrated local resident, Tom Thumb.
No-one famous, powerful or important lives in Tattershall now - unless you count those privileged newts who have taken up residence in the castle moat; but, given its intriguing history and its significant present, the place deserves some respect – especially from the locals.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Open or Shut?

I boarded a fairly empty bus on a warm, sunny day and, all the windows being shut, I opened two of them – one on each side of the vehicle. It was a decisive and, to my mind, reasonable action given the circumstances as I perceived them: the interior was stuffy but the passengers were too inhibited to do anything about it. But come the hour, cometh the man and so I dutifully rescued all of us from suffocation. Nobody said anything at the time but as we alighted at the terminal stop one of them, an old lady, asked me politely whether I didn’t think I had acted inconsiderately.

I conceded that she had a point insofar as I hadn’t conducted an opinion poll before opening the windows but countered that I hadn’t considered my action to be anti-social. She demurred and I apologised for the offence although this failed to assuage her indignation: it seemed she had already made up her mind to lump me into the category of “people these days” who have no consideration for others – which was unsettling because I just don’t see myself that way.

Maybe I was due a bit of correction in that respect but, if we accept that it can be  therapeutic to see yourself as others perceive you, it would also be very enlightening to be able to see others as they perceive themselves. Mind-reading is not one of my skills but my critic on this occasion did reveal one or two clues as to her self-perceived position. As I attempted to channel our exchange into a sociological discussion it became clear that she was unwilling to be persuaded: she was right and I was wrong. Her ultimate statement was that she suffered from arthritis in the neck which could be set off by draughts. I hadn’t thought of that, had I? No, I hadn’t, but how could I be sure it was true? I could see that she would not concede a single point. It was then I noticed the gold crucifix dangling from her neck and gave up on my hopes for a rational argument.

The next day the media were full of those fascinating old photos of mass weddings conducted by the Unification Church. Headlines proclaimed that its founder and leader, Sun Myung Moon, billionaire media owner, sometime political power-broker and enemy of independent thinkers (well, that’s how I see him), had died before I got around to making his acquaintance - thereby denying me a chance to ascertain how he saw himself. And so I can only speculate.

I would have liked to ask him, for a start, how he knew for certain that “There is one living, eternal and true God, a Person beyond space and time, who possesses perfect intellect, emotion and will, whose deepest nature is heart and love, who combines both masculinity and femininity, who is the source of all truth, beauty, and goodness, and who is the creator and sustainer of man and the universe and of all things visible and invisible” because this statement is both an article of faith and an unsubstantiated story which usefully eliminates the need to think rationally about a difficult concept. Did he believe the former and exploit the latter?

I can only see Mr. Moon through the lens of his legacy which leads me to conclude that he was a megalomaniac who, by succeeding in persuading others to regard him as the saviour of mankind, may even have convinced himself that he actually was. He would probably have seen me as no more than a potential donor to his coffers (or, euphemistically, a lost soul in need of salvation).

If it were possible for us to see ourselves as others see us - and for us to see others as they see themselves - we might have a chance of making honest dialogue work towards vanquishing stifling dogmas. I just wanted to open a few windows.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Ring, Ring. Who's There?

I have lately been making use of the excellent Overground line to travel around East London and have been fascinated by how its passengers reflect the ethnic and social diversity of the population it serves. My optional pastimes during these journeys are reading, snoozing, people-watching and - courtesy of mobile phones - eavesdropping. The delicious practice of assessing people by their dress, demeanour and habit, without directly engaging them, has become more seductive now that phone conversations are in such abundance. It is one thing to sit opposite a person and try to guess from outward appearance what their life comprises but the experience is enhanced by the availability of these audible clues as to the state of their finances, their relationships, their work, their pleasures and their frustrations.

I am surprised by the extent to which some people are willing to proclaim the details of their own and others’ lives to strangers although I suppose this may be characteristic of more extrovert types - with or without the aid of mobile phones. One young woman on a rush-hour train had a lengthy and very public phone conversation with her father about her first day in a new job (temporary, while she considered her options to study architecture further) at a private clinic. She listed some of the famous clients, who included Helen Bonham Carter, but - because it was her first day - was unable to provide us with details of their ailments. Her new employers should have checked her Facebook pages before engaging her: there they might have discovered that she is the kind of person given to indiscretion.

But the last train of the day is the best source of such entertainment. Many of the travellers are loose-tongued as a result of drinking and there is often a congenial, relaxed atmosphere in the carriages. One night I was listening to a couple of foreigners discussing the spelling of the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and what possible reason there might be for including the letter ‘w’ in one but not the other. I was tempted to intervene with an etymological explanation but was distracted by the girl sitting next to me who phoned her bank to report that her bag had been stolen in a pub. During the course of her call she revealed to all within earshot the details of her identity - name, address, date of birth, mother’s maiden name etc. I became concerned about her indiscretion, since stalking and identity theft are known issues and one is best advised to be careful.

At the opposite end of the scale are the reticent people who don’t make calls and are reluctant even to answer them. They will silence the ringing promptly, look abashed, whisper in monosyllables and hang up having revealed nothing of interest to their prurient audience: nothing, that is, except for that ringtone which, in itself, comprises a clue. Take the familiar Nokia tune which signifies an unfashionable old handset - or an unfashionable old person; or one of the stock tones chosen from the menu of a smartphone which defines someone with the latest gadget but neither the will nor the wit to customise it; or a downloaded fragment of music chosen for its personal meaning which marks out a tech-savvy but sentimental person; and then there is the novelty sound-effect which was amusing at the time but now is a bit of an embarrassment. There but for...

One such ringtone I heard on a train to Stoke went like this: it was the sound of a mullah calling the faithful to prayer, the whistling of an incoming shell and the finality of an explosion. I reckon that one sounding out on the last train through London E1 would be way beyond embarrassing for its owner.

Saturday, 25 August 2012


It’s the summer holidays and I can understand that parents might be desperate to find novel ways to entertain their young children, but a one-and-a-half hour guided tour of a small house in Hampstead seems unlikely to fit the bill. Nevertheless there were two such children, with their parents, in our small group as we shouldered into the tight spaces of 2 Willow Road. The house has a pedigree: the Modernist architect, Hungarian émigré Ernö Goldfinger, designed and built it in 1939 for himself, his wife and their two children.

Ernö was an uncompromising man and his architectural principles were rigorously defined by the use of space, light and materials to maximise his buildings’ utility. He displayed great ingenuity and integrity in the pursuit of his ideals but the resulting aesthetic was and is not to everyone’s liking. This is the history that the two children were expected to assimilate – without being allowed to touch any object whatsoever. I could only imagine that their parents were architects themselves and habitually served up such dry entertainment. Not that architects are necessarily cruel to children: Ernö, we were told, was extremely fond of them and even designed the toys that filled the bedrooms and nursery - which were to be the last rooms on our tour.

Other émigrés from Eastern Europe came here in the 1930s bringing new architectural ideas with them to challenge the old order: sleek designs which rejected established styles such as “Tudorbethan”; methods of construction using concrete to do away with supporting walls; even ways of living were questioned by introducing high-rise flats with integrated services. There were some successes but, on the whole, their ideas died with them and the few buildings that remain intact are cherished by aficionados of their pioneering work. Perhaps, before emigrating to Britain, they should have studied our abysmal form on the acceptance of new-fangled ideas.

The Romans were the first to attempt to introduce architecture to our bemused ancestors. The Ancient British, content with their simple eco-houses made of sticks, mud and sods, had hitherto thought that their erections of crudely cut stones into big circular patterns in fields represented the pinnacle of building sophistication so, when the Romans showed them how to build forts, viaducts, villas and roads, they must have felt somewhat embarrassed by their inadequacy. But when the Romans departed 500 years later the natives reverted to their basic building techniques having learned nothing - although they were quick to recycle the abandoned masonry into dry-stone walling.

The East Europeans gave it their best shot but did not have the Romans’ power of colonisation when it came to imposing their ideas. By 1930 Britain had refined and set its domestic architecture through a process of historical references and was resistant to outside influences. Number 2 Willow Road may be a perfect example of a house designed to suit modern living, yet so many preferred the older ways.

While our guide explained the concrete, central-core construction of the spiral staircase, the health-giving properties of the ventilation system, the thoughtfully recessed windows with white surrounds reflecting light into the interior and numerous other innovations, the children were marvellously quiet, patient and composed. Either they knew what to expect or they were on best behaviour so as not to be excluded from the nursery. If so, they showed a brave face when it proved to be empty of toys, save for the ones shown in an old monochrome photo.

By my reckoning Ernö Goldfinger (if only for his remarkable name) should have achieved greater fame and fortune. But his mistake was to expect others would adopt his principle that logic should hold sway over nostalgia in the design of domestic living spaces. Perhaps, if those children were paying attention, his cause is not quite lost.