Friday, 27 July 2012

Testing Wallets

The business card read “Cafren E......, Illustrator” but, since I had never known of anybody named Cafren, I couldn’t say if it’s owner was male or female. I spoke the name out loud and it sounded like a lazy pronunciation of Catherine. Then I thought it might be the Gaelic form of an ordinary name like Kevin; or the outcome of prolonged parental agonising over novel names for offspring; or possibly the invention of its owner, intent on adopting a distinctive-sounding stage name with an eye to future fame and fortune. The card, along with a discount voucher for Paradise Island Adventure Golf, was in a wallet I had found in the street. There was no cash, no bank-card or anything else.

Losing your wallet is an inconvenience, minor or major, according to the significance of its contents. I am, of course, making the assumption that the wallet was lost - or that it was stolen, emptied and discarded. But there is another possibility which is that its owner threw it away in disgust at what their life had become. I imagine Cafren out on the town the previous night and having drunk far too much, proclaiming to his/her friends that life was going nowhere fast, that the name Cafren had been an error of judgment and that it was time to make a new start, to reinvent oneself with a fresh identity and set of goals; then, with an oath and an over-dramatic gesture, tossing the wallet, repository of ID, onto the kerbside (having previously exhausted its monetary content).

If this is what happened it was a brave gesture on Cafren’s part but one which was inconsiderate of the consequence for the likes of me. For the finder of a wallet is faced straight away with an unwanted question concerning their own moral values: is the urge to pick it up driven by concern or by opportunism? Is the underlying motivation a wish to reunite wallet and owner or is it merely the base hope of acquiring a fat wad  of notes which, on the flimsiest of imagined justifications such as that it might have belonged to an evil drug-dealer, can be spent as greedily as a banker’s bonus?

All this flashed through my mind as I stooped to pick it up but I am pleased to report that relief, not disappointment, was my feeling on discovering its meagre contents. I was able to drive the morality test deep into the long grass of ‘academic point of interest’ and not have to tee-up to the next level - whether to return the money or steal it. Nevertheless I felt the wallet, empty treasure chest or remnant of a shattered dream, was part of its owner’s identity and it would have been disrespectful to throw it in the bin. So I kept it for a while.

I thought it a little unfair that the next morning, in almost the same spot, I was tested once more by the sight of another wallet abandoned at the kerbside. This one was fat with promise and I had to resist the frisson induced by the anticipation of instant wealth while, bending to pick it up, I fought to convince myself that my intention was benign. Stuffed though it was, it contained no cash but bank cards, a driving license, various club passes and loyalty cards. And with a name like Peter and an ID photo there was no gender mystery to ponder. With considerable detective acumen I noticed that there was an unzipped compartment that may well have contained the cash and from this I deduced that Peter’s wallet had been stolen, relieved of readies and chucked contemptuously into the gutter.

I took Peter’s wallet to a branch of his bank from where they could arrange for him to retrieve it. They wrote down my details so that they could send me a reward (I am still waiting for it but I understand the bank is itself a little short of cash these days). Peter phoned to thank me but I missed his call and listened instead to his message. I thought of calling him back and assuring him that it was empty of money when I found it – but that might sound as though I am guilty so I’ll leave him guessing.

I didn’t make any effort to return Cafren’s wallet: after all, the Paradise Island Adventure Golf discount voucher had recently expired.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Life is Tense

It would appear that the Pirahã Indians of Brazil have no future. Could this be on account of the relentless progress of ‘civilisation’? Quite possibly: but the Pirahã are futureless also in the sense that their language contains no future tense and, consequently, they live their lives from day-to-day. Or is it the other way round? Does the way they live determine their language? But that is a question beloved of Whorfians and the like, people who study Linguistic Relativity. It’s not so relevant if you are content, as are the Pirahã, to exist in the present.

How I envy them right now when the pressure is on me to face up to the future in the form of the nine-day programme of gigs which is the Manchester Jazz Festival. My dilemma is one of forward-planning and I am feeling overwhelmed by the number and variety of performances on offer; the fear of picking the worst ones and of missing the best; the anxiety of timetabling my life so as to weave its mundane events into the Festival; the question of whether or not to book tickets in advance and the reluctance to recommend gigs to friends and risk being responsible should they come away disappointed.

My anxieties obviously threaten to spoil my enjoyment of the music - besides which jazz is a fluid and freeform affair so it feels counter-intuitive to have to plan minutely for the pleasure. But I ought to have no problem with thinking ahead since our complex language provides us with just the grammatical tenses we need for such thought processing. We know, for example, that the Jazz Kings are scheduled in the programme for Wednesday. We might say, therefore, that they will perform on Wednesday. We might also say that they will be performing on Wednesday or we might say they are performing on Wednesday – in which case is it Wednesday already? Perhaps the application of Linguistic Relativity theories is not going to be as helpful as I had hoped.

Tempted by advertising and hype I also considered whether attending another kind of festival might be a good idea. The ones which appeal to me are multi-cultural and include music, literature, film, food etc. all compressed into a long weekend. On reflection, however, given so much choice and so little time I suspect my anxieties would be compounded to the point of panic, my decision-making facility would seize up completely and my entrance fee would have been wasted.

It wasn’t always like this. My first experience of music festivals was relaxed, unplanned and free-wheeling. I am reminded of this by a photo of a girlfriend and me on a ferry bound for the Isle of Wight circa 1970. She wore platform shoes, a mini-skirt, a summer blouse and a straw hat. I wore plimsolls, jeans, flowery shirt and a thin nylon jacket. We had no other clothing, no tent – nor even an overnight bag (although we did have a couple of grams of Afghan Black which proved to be a tradable commodity when seeking accommodation). Otherwise our approach was very Pirahã, very ‘in the moment’.

I’m not sure what happened to change all that. Certainly the music festival concept has evolved from its idealistic beginnings and has become more of a commercial proposition: the simple, one-band-at-a-time schedules I once enjoyed are not the best format for maximising profit.  Simultaneous multi-stage complexity is the new norm and forethought is essential if you want to get the most out of your festival experience. But I can’t help thinking that the Pirahã are on to something and if there was no future then I wouldn’t be so tense.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Killer Joe

I went to the cinema to watch a new release and here’s how the story began: a young man owes a few thousand dollars to a drug dealer who will break every bone in his body, before killing him, unless he repays the money by Wednesday. Already I see the plot is flawed: he won’t be able to reclaim his money from a corpse. But I am missing the point of the film which (call me slow-witted) becomes clear only towards the end: the point is to cram as much graphic, sadistic violence as is possible into 102 minutes of expensively crafted cinematography - and then persuade people to buy tickets.

Unremitting violence unhindered by human compassion is not my idea of entertainment yet there are those who think otherwise. Well, maybe I’m just not the target market. But then I wasn’t the target market for the film I’d seen before that either, the one in which all the characters were lovelorn 20-somethings floundering in a shallow pool of self-obsession. I suppose such subject matter is interesting if you’re, well, 20-something. Perhaps I should stick to films aimed firmly at my sector of the market – whatever that may be: and therein lies the problem. The film industry has its sights set on all its various market segments up to a point – children, family entertainment, teen humour, twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings etc. - but then, around middle-aged bloke (MAB), it all starts to lose focus. I think the film industry and I both need some help.

A universal understanding of what constitutes a MAB would be a good start. Is it literally a bloke who has reached the middle of his lifespan? If so, a previous generation which lived to an average age of, say, 56 would have achieved middle-age at 23. Nowadays we live longer and it would be nearer to 40 (giving us more time to go to the cinema). But those are averages: specifically it makes even less sense. Those who die at 100 would not reach middle-age until 50 and those who die at 20 would get there at 10. By these calculations the definition of a MAB becomes a constantly moving target which even the most accomplished marketing people would find very tricky to hit.

This one-dimensional classification clearly won’t suffice, since MABs may not be simply defined by arithmetic. There’s no denying that ageing brings with it recognisable physical and mental characteristics which surely merit inclusion in the equation. Among these a particular ‘state of mind’ can be observed, mid-way between youthful exuberance and elderly rigidity: a transitional phase during which the brain’s decision-making process is modified by experience causing attitudes to become entrenched. It’s difficult to quantify empirically but not so hard to spot intuitively. I have heard it said that you can recognise its onset when your broad mind begins to swap places with your narrow waist. If this is true then I, for one, should be very vigilant indeed.

But even if MAB recognises himself the film industry is missing a trick: it really should be shipping him a steady stream of suitable product – just as it does for other sectors. So, to help both parties out, I propose that the film industry tags a classification to the end of its titles which reflects the intended audience. It could start with CO for Children Only, FF for Family Fun, TH for Teen Humour and so on ending with AC for All Comers. At least then MABs could work out which ones we need not bother seeing and the industry might realise that it’s portfolio is light in the MAB department.

And the film I saw? I can’t bring myself to recommend it but try listening to this instead:
 It’s the classic tune of the same name, written and performed by Benny Golson.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

It's Africa, Jim, But Not As We Know It.

There’s a busker in Manchester who plays the kora, sprinkling sweet notes across Piccadilly Gardens, while people bustle past and trams rattle and squeal within inches of his pitch. I like what he plays but have never thrown any coins into his hat because I am inclined to disapprove of his use of powered amplification and find it hard to accept that the instrument, hand-crafted in the ancient tradition from calabash, cowhide and seasoned, native wood, should have its natural voice distorted by the intervention of modern technologies. I listen, by comparison, to a blackbird, perched for much of the day just outside my window, performing unplugged. The natural acoustic of its song rises over the city, mocking the clamour of industry, business and technology.

Nevertheless, despite his amplifier, the busker, a small, grizzled West African, is talented – and intrepid for he plays his foreign tunes, uninvited, in the heart of a city renowned for its own, very different, musical heritage. Yesterday I passed him on my way to a nearby exhibition of West African art and speculated whether he might take his lunch-break at the gallery to sit and reflect nostalgically amongst the cultural artefacts of his homeland, the masks and figures carved from ivory and mahogany which I was on my way to see.

I ought not skim-read things: by doing so I had missed the last word in the exhibition’s title West African Art Today; there were no ivory statuettes. In fact the first thing I encountered was an amplified soundscape recorded on the streets of central Lagos and sounding rather like any other city. Africa has, of course, moved on from where I imagined it to be.

The largest piece on display is a spectacular, multi-coloured, glistening tapestry – not of woven thread but of stitched-together bottle-tops and various other small pieces of coloured metal. It startled me into remembering that my brother and I, as children, curated our own collection of bottle-tops which we treasured for their shiny colours and valued according to their provenance. We kept them in boxes and brought them out to admire, compare and categorise by pattern, condition and rarity. Then we would arrange them in shapes on the floor, often pretending they were tanks or artillery pieces.

In this remembered context El Anatsui’s tapestry is the ultimate display of bottle tops, the ne plus ultra of collections of salvaged materials. In its modern context, however, this work reflects upon a very African state of affairs in which the commercial products of the West have infiltrated a society which is only partly able to assimilate them. Machine made goods have been available since colonists first invaded yet masses of people still cannot afford to buy them and only have access to what is discarded or surplus. Is it surprising that they set a value upon the broken-down appliances, the packaging and other detritus? Maybe they approach these objects, not as we children did, enthralled by the colours, but as adults questioning the wastefulness and looking for ways to redress it. The tapestry is both a curious thing of beauty and an ironic comment on colonialism.

I walked back past the busker who was taking a break, rolling a cigarette from a pack of Old Holborn tobacco. I asked him about his music and where he was from. He told me he came from Gambia and lives here now because he married a Mancunian.
“Do you know about the exhibition down the road?” I asked.
“Oh yes, I am playing some gigs there”.
He pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper and showed me his list of engagement dates. I put some money in his hat and he bowed politely – or was it ironically? Africa is bringing its vibrant, extrovert culture to us and is unabashed about applying our technologies in the process.