Saturday, 27 July 2013

Festival Respite

Manchester's International Festival, a two-week long programme of cultural events, has just finished: it overlapped the Theatre Festival, is about to be followed by the Jazz Festival and, later in the year, the Literature Festival. This glut of celebrations may be beneficial to the city as a whole but, for the individual follower, it is surely the cultural equivalent of binge drinking - and may well prove to be a cause of future health problems such as cirrhosis of the critical faculty. Culture vultures are advised to pace their consumption, to "Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some, and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some". *

I dipped a toe into the festival waters by visiting a few of the performance/ installation thingies, but they left me feeling more irritated than intrigued. Perhaps I lacked the patience to wait for that video to move or for that blacked-out room to reveal its secret. I was certainly unwilling to follow that artist's instruction to "...stop and smile at a stranger" - although I may have done so in the 1960s when it all seemed more appropriate. I didn't hang around long: after all, days are short and there is all that dancing, singing, working etc. to get through...

And there is camper-vanning too. I was in the mood for a brief escape to the festival-free Lancashire countryside, much of which remains delightfully unsullied by the progress of civilisation. The satisfaction of driving from an urban environment to a quiet rural spot is progressively rewarding: after starting off in dense traffic, harassed by frantic, impatient and sometimes aggressive drivers, you turn on to a less-crowded trunk road, then a deserted minor road which leads to a farm track ending in a grassy meadow where, killing the engine, there is no sound but bird song.

On this occasion I sought out the farmer by following a hand-written sign "office" with an arrow pointing to a portacabin next to a run-down outhouse. My knock on the door produced no immediate response so I peered through the window at the most squalid room I have ever seen. Presently, from a couch in a dark corner, the stooped figure of an old man rose slowly and moved towards the door. He came out smiling - or was it grimacing? - to greet me. His thick thatch of white hair and bright facial complexion suggested rude health but his obvious neglect of personal grooming and eccentric clothing signalled a lack of social contact. He wore a thick, grubby woollen shirt over a greying vest, all tucked into a shredded pair of bottle-green corduroy trousers held up by a makeshift arrangement - a belt worn like a bandolier diagonally across his chest and one of his shoulders. Of course he may well have regarded my persona with derision - city type dressed in carefully co-ordinated, country-leisure outfit - but, like me, he was brought up to neither stare nor comment. City met country in a polite stand-off.

Later, having shaken off my festivalitis, I settled in to experience the straightforward, uncomplicated bucolic pleasure of a warm summer's evening in a tranquil meadow nestled in picture-book countryside - with a BBQ and a fine bottle of Yarra Valley pinot noir. Meanwhile, I imagined, the farmer was lurking in some grim recess of his lair, gnawing on old mutton bones and drinking potcheen.

The next morning, setting off for a therapeutic hike, I noticed a sign nailed to a tree. It advertised the "Great Mitton & District Ploughing and Hedging Festival". I am now concerned that this could be the start of a whole series of agrifests and that we shall see hoards of weirdly dressed countrymen coming to town to escape them.

*Robert Fulghum, author (b. 1937)

Saturday, 20 July 2013

The Outdoor Life

The fact that the original architects of the city of Manchester had not provided outdoor recreational space in their street plans soon became obvious when the indoor smoking ban was introduced in 2007. Gangs of smokers appeared on the streets, huddling in whatever nooks and crannies would accommodate them: nor did they bring their ashtrays. Manchester's limited street space is once again under pressure because of the unusual and extended spell of exceptionally warm weather which has cafes, bars and coffee shops all competing for whatever scraps of pavement they can find to set out their chairs and tables among the discarded fag ends. There are no elegant piazze such as they have in Italian cities.
Manchester ceased to be a nice place to live once the cotton industries were fully established at the beginning of the 19th century. The area became an ecological disaster zone devoted entirely to the mighty business of making money out of manufacturing. Rich people moved out to the countryside, leaving the poor working classes to live in the slums they had created. One rich man, Thomas Horsfall, felt conscience bound to redress the situation by establishing a museum, art gallery and craft workshop in a working district. He wanted to bring the beauty of art and nature to those who had no access to it - despite the pessimistic view of his mentor, John Ruskin, who believed the vast scale of industrial squalor in Manchester put its population beyond such help.
Some things have changed for the better since the 1850s.The population is wealthier and the countryside is well within its reach. The slums have been cleared. Redundant factories, mills and depots have been either flattened or adapted to facilitate different economic activities. Debate rages over whether we should demolish some of the remaining redundant buildings, especially the grander ones, and there is a nice metaphor that likens that process to "tearing pages out of the history book". It is easy to sympathise with this view but much that remains of the old built environment harks back to a previous way of life and, in so doing, stifles progress.
Last night I went on a mini pub-crawl (in the interests of research) and noted that all four of the places I visited were converted premises i.e. they had not been built originally as pubs. It is a clear case of changing lifestyles. When industrial cities began to expand, thousands of pubs were established on streets full of dwellings where they served the purpose of providing a comfortable haven for men to escape squalid domestic environments. Changing circumstances have led to the closure of many of these places and the subsequent concentration of the 'entertainment industry' in city centres where the decline of retail business has left plenty of premises available. The experience of sitting in a shop window to drink beer may not be quite the same as that of being enclosed within the ornate splendour of a Victorian "gin palace" but the essential purpose is being fulfilled: socialising in an agreeable environment. In any case, it beats shopping.
I walked past two semi-ornate 1930s buildings that (to use the emotive language of objectors) are to be "torn down" to make way for the modernisation of a prominent square. Although this will certainly 'tear a page from the history book' we should balance that against the benefits of adapting our environment to suit our present living needs. Non-human life-forms do not have the power to do this - they must adapt to changed habitats or die out. But we humans have the ability to fashion our environment and, if we are careful, improve it. We may even choose to accommodate such refined lifestyle habits as al fresco smoking and drinking – weather permitting.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Thoughtful Trainlines

Our government is determined to reduce expenditure - even to the extent of degrading the fabric of society - but perhaps it should take note of Edmund Burke's observation, made around 250 years ago, that "Mere parsimony is not economy. Expense, and great expense, may be an essential part in true economy".

Perhaps it did take Burke's advice into account when it made the decision to spend an estimated £52 billion of our money on a new, high-speed railway line (trains not included) which will connect a few cities that are already well served by railway lines. The government argues that it would be good for economic growth which, on current trend, means the rich will get richer while the bulk of the population will not.

Railways are an efficient way of connecting hubs but back in 1962 a lot of the minor routes were closed on the grounds of economy. Some hubs, it seems, are more valuable than others and this is one of the reasons why we are left with a divided Britain - part of which is connected by rail and part of which is not. I have become familiar with the former by use of trains and with the latter by use of a camper-van. As a way of exploring the lesser-frequented parts of the countryside a camper-van is ideal: it provides transport and accommodation in places where both are hard to come by. Last week we took ours down one of the quiet green valleys of mid-Wales.

We left the trunk road and followed a minor one (built on top of the former railway line) to Llanidloes where the magnificent but now redundant station building once served as the main office of the Cambrian Railway Company. From there a deserted country lane - an ancient route lined with hedgerows bursting with foliage and colourful blooms - led us to a farm field given over to camper-vans. We were the only visitors. "I think everyone's gone abroad" said the farmer's wife as we exchanged pleasantries about the fine weather and she told me that she would be driving a tractor for the next few days so as to get the harvest in. Later, after putting a match to the BBQ, fixing cocktails and settling down to watch the wild creatures scamper about while the sun sank slowly through the trees, I felt a pang of commiseration for the farmer's wife - but mostly satisfaction at having rented such a perfectly bucolic pitch for a very modest fee.

Over much of Britain the camper-van takes us through seemingly vast areas of uninhabited countryside to places like this where, apart from a farm or two, there are no buildings to be seen. Yet our towns and cities are overcrowded: there is a shortage of housing; there is not enough land to build on; the roads are jammed with traffic; commuter trains are packed and people's lives are stressed. Do we really live on an over-crowded island, or is it simply a case of uneven distribution?

After a peaceful night's sleep we walked into the attractive little town of Llanidloes where evidence of prosperity was abundant. High Street banks, still functioning, were well represented; not one of the many pubs had shut up shop; market stalls were setting up as they had done for hundreds of years, local produce was on sale and posh English accents could be heard amongst the Welsh. This town has a vibrancy that many others dream of. Could we find a way to share it around?

The Victorians built the original railway network in order to move goods and maximise profit: the subsequent, unforeseen benefits of social mobility and national-cohesion were not part of their plan. But if we are to spend billions of taxpayers' pounds on railways then it should not be primarily for the benefit of 'business'. For that kind of money we could build a more extensive, more effective rail network to re-connect the whole nation.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Time To Go Gardening

The time I spent living in the Sahara Desert taught me two things: one was never to go out in the midday sun; the other was never to complain about the weather back home. It's not just that the Sahara is very hot: it is mind-numbingly, never-endingly hot. Britain, by comparison, with its cycle of four seasons, is a refreshing and stimulating place to wake up in, a place where the weather - capricious as it is - keeps you on your toes. In the Sahara the weather keeps you mostly on your back.

The predictability of my precious seasons may be threatened by global climate changes but they do still retain a rough pattern and sequence. Right now, early summer, is a time of anticipation. The sap is rising in so many ways: students are finishing their studies and heading off to music festivals; families are getting excited about going on holiday; tables and chairs are being set outside cafés and pubs - and I am watching my geraniums begin to flower. Not that I am a fanatical gardener, but my enthusiasm for music festivals wore thin years ago, family holidays are off my agenda and there is only so much time one can profitably spend at cafes and pubs.

And, given my hard-won appreciation for the changing seasons, I do my best to encourage mother nature to display her wonders. I once lived in a house which had an extensive garden but nowadays it's a city centre apartment with balconies where geraniums - and other potted plants - have pride of place. Here the random splashes of green foliage and multi-coloured blooms serve as an antidote to regimented architecture, drab stone, dull concrete, utilitarian railings and grimy bricks. Against such a background, plants represent the joyous spirit of uncontrolled chaos asserting itself in spite of having been deliberately excluded by the town planners.

Evidently not all the residents around here feel the same way. There are some token plants on one or two balconies, some neglected specimens on others but none at all on most. This strikes me as strange. Surely they cannot all be indifferent to the change in season heralded by the blossoming of plants? And where is their pride in appearance? One's balcony, unlike one's back garden, can be seen by hundreds of people. At the least I would expect some competition to develop - as it does so readily on allotments.

But perhaps they are all content to look across at my display - and who could blame them? I have experimented endlessly to get things just right. Different styles of pots, changed according to the fashion of the day; a profuse variety of geraniums; a few carefully interspersed evergreens and everything arranged tastefully with all the sensitivities that my limited knowledge of feng-shui can bring to the scene. Faced with such a show of expertise, would-be competitors may well have withdrawn from the fray.

I took a well-earned break from tending my display, sitting down to leaf through the weekend papers where a special feature advertising the summer's music festivals caught my attention and caused me to look back and ponder on my gradual  transition from carefree, youthful festival-goer to pernickety old gardener. How did that happen? I decided to find out - the easy way. That evening Glastonbury was on the TV. After watering all the pots I settled down to watch.

The sun shone on the crowds (just as I remember it used to) but my heart wasn't with them. The music didn't belong to me - until the Stones came on and took charge of the occasion. They hit us with a double whammy, stirring the loins of an old gardener and captivating a generation (or two) of future gardeners.