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.