Saturday, 29 June 2013

Which World Are You Living In?

I was quite surprised to hear the recorded voice of Mr. Parkinson - he of Parkinson's Law fame - on radio last week: I thought he had died sometime in the 18th Century. But it was as recently as 1955 that he first articulated the adage, pronouncing it a law of science, that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". This law (along with the kindred "if you want something doing, give it to a busy person" and "if it wasn't for the last minute, nothing would ever get done" - both of which are yet to be scientifically validated) wrings a knowing smile from those who have observed its effects.

Parkinson backed up his argument with compelling statistics from a first-hand study of the British Civil Service where he had worked. The main thrust of his case, however, was to demonstrate the alarming rate at which the numbers of civil servants inevitably multiplied regardless of whether the volume of their work increased, diminished or disappeared altogether. This image of an inefficient institution has stuck in the popular imagination ever since.

Perhaps this is why, when the Chancellor announced this week he is to put an end to automatic annual pay rises in the public sector, he received a metaphorical round of applause from those in the private sector, where such entitlements have not been seen since the early 1980s. Why, they ask, has it taken so long? After all it has been 57 years since Parkinson spilled the beans. Do these people live in a different world from us?
In a way they do - as do many others.

At the corner shop yesterday I was served not by the proprietor, as I usually am, but by a young, second-generation immigrant chap I had not seen before. The till was short of small coins so he was pleased that I offered him a handful of loose change. One of the coins, however, he rejected on the grounds that it was foreign.
"No it's not" I said, flipping it "look - it has the Queen's head on it".
He studied it for a while. Then his mate came over and took an interest.
"Is that the Queen?" he said.
"Yes, look she is on all the coins" I replied.
"Oh yeah. So, is that our Queen?"
"Yes" I said, probably sounding incredulous by now.
"Yeah but I heard" said his mate "that she is on some Canadian coins too".
"Yes" I said "and on Australian coins".
"Is she?"
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Here" they replied.
By now they were sufficiently intrigued to listen to the short lecture on British colonial history I felt obliged to deliver in order to convince them that I was not trying to pass off a foreign coin in exchange for a bag of onions.
"Well, thanks for that. They didn't teach us that at school" said one.
"Yeah, that's really interesting" said the other and with smiles all round, I went back to my world, leaving them to study all the coins in the till.

When I told this story to my partner she countered with one of her own. That morning she had taken a group of 13 year-old schoolgirls on a guided tour of the newly-opened BBC TV news studios. When invited to put questions one of them said "Where do you get the news from before you see it on TV?" The exasperated newsroom staff were enlightened by another of the girls who explained that none of them has ever watched TV news. They get all they need to know from Facebook.

It seems we all coexist in different worlds - which need not be too troubling as long as we don't delude ourselves that ours is the only really valid one.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

A Peculiarly Male Dilemma

My friend R and I met up last week for a boys' night out although, strictly speaking, we are not boys nor have been for a very long time: we are men. But the phrase "men’s night out" sounds rather solemn and doesn't hold out the promise of joyful, schoolboy mischief which is an essential part of the pleasure of all-male company. Still, must it be 'boys'? There are also fellows, chaps, guys, geezers, lads and blokes, all of whom have their nights out. Will none of these titles do for us?

Well, we are certainly not fellows: they exist mainly in mythology - where they are generally seen as "jolly good" - and in traditional parts of Liverpool, where they are referred to as 'fellers'. We would not want to be chaps, even if our backgrounds were sufficiently privileged for us to qualify: their reputation for being decent and trustworthy has long since been discredited. Guys are not really considered British - unless you are too young to remember that - and might include females when the term is used collectively. As for geezers, they are either very old or very Cockney. Lads are, confusingly, young or Northern or disreputable - or a combination of these. And blokes are rather one-dimensional stereotypes of stolid male dependability.

All of the above definitions are subjective and variable depending on circumstances, regional quirks and socio-economic situations. “Lads”, for example, are seen regularly in pubs where they drink too much lager and are unabashedly loud and sexist. “Blokes” are also seen in pubs but they drink real ale in moderate quantities and are reserved in company. They are also likely to be in a position to oblige you with the loan of a drill or a ladder.
In middle class parlance "boys' night out" is shorthand for "an exclusively male trip to the pub" so I suppose we qualified as boys on account of our being middle class, middle aged and intent on harmless, gender-specific, socially acceptable drinking. In any case the phrase is a useful coverall. It helps, for example, in managing the expectations of one's (female) partner who might otherwise feel that she is missing out on some interesting or important social event. Certainly my partner would not have wanted to be included in our tour of Shoreditch pubs where the craft-ales are plentiful and the food has lashings of man-appeal. It was sufficient to announce "We're going on a boy's night out" without having to outline the programme.

But we liked it, R and I. The beer and food were excellent and not once did we get called 'boys'. In one pub we were served by the new girl, so young she wasn't sure how to address us - and so didn't. In another we were honoured as 'gents' by the (again) young but nevertheless knowledgeable barman who dispensed beer with relish to appreciative customers. In a third we were treated as old geezers, even though it was not spoken and in a fourth we were seated for supper and called 'sir' by a proper waiter.

Some days later I was called 'sir' once more. I had finally got around to taking a jacket to the tailor to have the arms shortened. I am not sure when it happened - my arms getting shorter - but a visit to the tailor is always worth it for the 'sir' and the flattering assurance that my taste in clothes is sophisticated and impeccable. While I was walking home my phone rang. It was my friend H.

"Hi Joe, How's it going?"
"Fine thanks, H. What's happening?"
"Oh, you know, same old stuff. Look, I was just wondering if you could lend me a drill?"

"Sure, no problem. Will you be needing a ladder as well?"

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Permeable Borders

When I was a reckless and carefree young man I read one book which convinced me to change my ways. It was titled (as I recall) Sugar, the White Death and, even before I had turned the last page, my mind was made up never to eat the sweet poison again. Which could well be the reason why I am alive today and able to take advantage of Mr Tate's other legacy - his art galleries - to which I was recently attracted by exhibitions of the works of Patrick Caulfield and Gary Hume. And so I made my way to London's Tate Modern last week full of expectation.

I arrived, however, at the wrong gallery. Caulfield and Hume are modern artists but they are also British: so their work is being shown at Tate Britain. It's a mistake I might not have made if I had paid due attention, but I consider myself misled by the trend towards "globalisation" which is blurring boundaries all over the place. While it has long been the norm for nations to nurture their native art for posterity, the global village now favours internationalism. Resistance to this trend is, I am sure, futile but not everyone is giving up without a struggle. The French, famously, have an aggressive official policy of defending and preserving la culture exceptionnelle in all its forms but, whilst I agree that it is certainly worth fighting for, even their future is looking increasingly mondiale.

I may have been at the wrong Tate but, since I was there, I toured the five galleries of the permanent collection which are themed in such a way that Mondrian, for example, is shown in the ‘Structure and Clarity’ section and Dali is in ‘Poetry and Dream’. This is helpful in making sense of the artists’ intentions, although some of the pieces lose a little of their mystique when defined thus. At Tate Britain there is a different policy: the works there have recently been re-organised into a chronological presentation. This is very useful in understanding the development in Britain of techniques and schools of thought, the influences of one artist upon another and the parts played by society, religion and power in dictating style and subject matter. I may have arrived too late in the day to enjoy the individual Caulfield and Hume exhibitions but I appreciated the broad overview afforded otherwise.

A few days later I heard a lecture on the subject of Chinese cinema which reinforced my conviction that all nations are moving, with the inevitability of tectonic plates, in the same cultural direction. There is a uniquely Chinese cinematic tradition - strictly speaking there are there are three of them: the tradition of the Peoples’ Republic of China, where creative freedom has been severely constrained by totalitarian politics; Taiwan’s, where 60 years of Japanese colonisation took its toll; and Hong Kong’s, where capitalism enabled the popularisation of kung fu.

The repatriation of Hong Kong to the mainland and the softening of attitudes towards Taiwan have at last allowed the citizens of the PRC some limited exposure to films from the other two Chinas – providing they are politically neutral. But the biggest breakthrough has come from another direction. The most popular film in China recently was Iron Man 3. But this is not a straightforward example of the unstoppable advance of American culture: Hollywood has taken a sophisticated approach to cracking the Chinese market by cunningly including an extra scene in the film. It features a popular Chinese actor playing a doctor who saves the western hero’s life, thereby trumping Capitalism with Communist know-how. This device not only satisfies the dirigisme of The Party but also delights the audiences. Furthermore, it serves to circumvent the strict quota of 14 foreign films per year allowed because it counts as a collaborative production. Now that’s what I call sweet – and poisonous.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Castles: The Original Gated Communities.

On a muggy day in tranquil, rural mid-Wales I stood alone on the stone remains of the medieval Castle Dryslwyn and looked down over the fertile valley created by the meandering river Tywi. Although the modern world intruded in the form of the monotonous sound of a tractor labouring over the ancient land, it was not difficult to imagine the past and the lives of those who, remote from the affairs of the rest of the world, had once depended upon the castle to safeguard their modest living - until it was finally overwhelmed by those who coveted it.

Whenever I see ruined castles I try to assess their strategic importance and by doing so gain some understanding of the conflicts of the past that brought them into being. In some cases they are fakes, built by landowners to enhance the vistas on their estates – a consequence of the popularity of romantic landscape paintings in which ruins are depicted to add visual drama, lend mystery and hint at legends. But whether authentic or fake, our country without these remains would be poorer: they are part of the collective memory that helps to bind society; they remind us that the present is built upon the past and that the status quo is temporary and subject to change. One day people may similarly revere the stumps of abandoned wind turbines and the hulks of de-commissioned atomic power stations.

But our cultural heritage is measured by much more than ruins: it also includes, for example, Otis Redding. The documentary film of Otis’ short but important career which I watched later that evening was fascinating, not so much because of his music (I was never a fan), but because it covered some key events in the development of popular music. Otis recorded with the Stax label whose records sold only to black Americans. The crossover to a white American audience came via success in Europe – especially England. The chinks in the armour of racial apartheid were beginning to open in the USA and music became a powerful factor in its dismantling. Black American artists were the inspiration for the British soul scene but the 60’s reverse invasion of America by British bands led to a creative cross-pollination resulting in diversification of styles and genres.

I was on a cultural-heritage-induced high by the end of the film but the next day I was brought down by news of the possible closure of several museums, among them Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) because of the proposed withdrawal of Government funding. Closing museums to save money is never good news: closing MOSI, an institution dedicated to preserving and explaining the very why and wherefore of Manchester’s existence, would be an act of cultural vandalism. Government will justify it on the grounds of austerity brought about by the global economic turndown. It will push the idea of alternative funding through charitable giving while it directs scarce public resources to the four big items: defence; education; healthcare and social welfare.

But the defence budget appears to be spent on the destruction of other countries’ infrastructure and cultural heritage; the education budget on training children not to think for themselves; the healthcare budget on management re-organisation, cover-ups and pay-offs and the social welfare budget on desperate remedial measures to compensate for the follies of the other three.

While privately owned financial institutions are bailed out with money that belongs to society and too many rich individuals and corporations evade taxes and abjure social responsibility, public funds contract and pressure is put on the philanthropic few to make up the shortfall. Cultural heritage gets short shrift as Britain looks increasingly like a poor country run for the benefit of a few rich individuals – just as it was in medieval times.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

St. David's Day

During the short time we were at St. David's the weather was 'mixed': days of unbroken sunshine interspersed with days of chill winds and driven rain. During a planning session, with the map unfolded on the table, the rain battering the windows and the remains of lunch cleared away, I reached for the half-empty bottle of wine and, being in no hurry, took time to read the medical advice regarding responsible drinking set out on the back label. The wine was 13% alcohol by volume and a 125ml glass-full of it would constitute 1.6 units of the three or four units per day which a male should not regularly exceed. With the aid of my phone I was eventually able to calculate that, if I wished to drink tomorrow, I had better put the cork in for now.
This informative labelling is provided courtesy of a supermarket chain torn between encouraging us to buy more wine than we ought and discouraging us from drinking too much of it. Thus enlightened, the concerned consumer has three ways to go: one is to memorise the equation, use calibrated glasses and meticulously measure the pleasure; two is to moderate consumption by gauging cause-and-effect by guesstimation; and three is to bypass the system altogether by drinking either recklessly or not at all. I have never met anyone who has chosen the first option.

Personally, I always managed well enough before the days of scientific calibration, competence in maths not being my strong point: besides there is too often scope for misinterpretation of well-intentioned scientific advice - however accurately presented. In the news that day was the story of a child who developed rickets because its mother had denied it vitamin D by over-application of sun-block cream.  Her information on the dangers of melanoma was incomplete and unconnected with anything else. Life's flow, old wives' tales, folklore or experience - call it what you will - context is crucial to the interpretation of statistics. Surely everyone knows how to take sensible precautions for their well-being?

The next day dawned sunny, as predicted, and we were prepared with our boots, map, packed lunches, flasks and sunglasses. St. David's peninsula, with its jagged coastline, cliffs, coves, inlets and ever-changing views, is a holiday destination popular with those who want beaches, water activities and coastal walks. And Ramsey Island, just offshore, adds scale and intrigue to the vista of the open sea. That day, set against a clear blue sky and a glittering sea, the yellow gorse, white and lilac wildflowers and fresh green grasses of spring all combined in a harmonious palette of colours fresh to the eye and invigorating to the spirit.

The coast path was not busy, except near the beaches where people had ventured up to the cliff for a short stretch, but we did encounter a few other hikers. In one party of four a middle aged woman had paused to answer her phone. I overheard an exasperated "Well, have you tried turning it off then back on again?" then a more enthusiastic "What's the weather like with you?" A party of about 20 Asian teenagers trooped past in the opposite direction. Their stylish clothes and unsuitable footwear gave away the fact that their tour bus must have been nearby: but at least they were able to see for themselves that it doesn't always rain in the UK.

We hiked all day. My feet needed a rest, my throat a beer and the rest of me a wash. But in the shower, as the water stung my head and shoulders, I noticed I had a T-shirt-shaped, white torso and vividly contrasting red arms and neck – a sure sign of vitamin D overdose. Later that evening, after lavishly moisturising, I neglected to compute the units of alcohol I consumed over dinner.