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widely distributed to cinemas in the region, as well as being shown to MPs at Westminster, and is now preserved as an historical document.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.