Saturday, 31 August 2013

Argument or Bluster?

"A timid question will always receive a confident answer". I have occasionally tested the truth of this adage and it seems to hold up. Timid questions result either from the questioner’s lack of knowledge about the subject or their deference to the person being questioned - classic examples can be seen in 1950s film clips of interviews with those figures of authority whose privileged backgrounds and exclusive access to information enabled them to steamroller any potential argument.
The rise of mass media in recent times has eroded such advantage by enabling more people to keep abreast of events and form their own opinions. Good interviewers nowadays are confident and skilled in probing defences and pressing for answers. But to no avail: a counter-measure has been widely adopted. Known as ‘media training’ it involves not answering questions but ignoring them in favour of spouting one’s views regardless. This technique threatens to kill the art of argument (as in ‘discussion’) stone dead and is also responsible, in our household at least, for a great deal of shouting at the radio and TV.
But this last, long weekend brought a temporary respite from such intellectual frustrations as we ventured into Yorkshire for some hiking on the moors, a little quiet reading and several good dinners. Actually the main motivation for leaving town was the onset of the annual Gay Pride celebration, a laudable and popular event, but one which entails three days and nights of exhibitionism and an awful lot of passé disco music, much of which takes place on our doorstep. The Yorkshire moors proved to be the perfect antidote to this excess: during one memorable five-hour hike, in exceptionally fine weather, we met only one other couple.
My first morning back in the city, however, was a sharp contrast. Within 15 minutes of walking I had two near collisions with miscreant cyclists, one whom was riding at speed on the pavement, ignoring the cycle lane provided alongside it and the other of whom was riding in the wrong direction up the one-way street which I was about to cross. Where is respect for the social compact that enables us to live together amicably? Where is law enforcement when you need it? Listening to a news item later that day concerning Detroit’s bankruptcy and its inability to afford an adequate police force, I began to fear that, given the recent cut-backs at home, we may soon be in the same position.
There was also an item on the protests against culling our native badger population as a means of controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis. Government has made a decision to proceed, although there is some vociferous dissent. I would like to be able to make up my mind about it but to do so would involve mastering all the facts put forward by various experts. Whether those who have decided which side they are on have done so rationally or emotionally is questionable.
An interview with one anti-cull supporter was a case in point. She was set to oppose the legislated cull by whatever means – including the harassment of individuals involved – but refused to reveal her name for fear she might herself be harassed. The interviewer asked her how she could justify unlawfully opposing legally sanctioned activity - but she ignored the question. Did she not understand the argument or was she yet another media-trained spokesperson? It was difficult to tell, but it had me shouting at the radio once more.
If you were to ask me whether culling badgers is an effective means of controlling bovine tuberculosis, I would be unable to give you an answer which is based on consideration of all the facts. If you were to ask me whether culling cyclists would be an effective way to enforce traffic regulations, I could make a pretty strong case for it.

Saturday, 24 August 2013


It's August and the place feels empty. Ten thousand students have left the city: people who have children and/or regular jobs have gone away on holiday for a "well-earned" break. Those of us who are not students, parents or employees are now experiencing the peculiar side-effects of their exodus: traffic is calm; the place feels more casual; "out of office" is the default response to emails and no one calls you back.

Whether holidays are well-earned or not is a subjective judgement, although back in the days when the concept was invented - when holy days were celebrated by granting the peasants a few hours respite from their otherwise ceaseless toil in the fields - they surely were deserved. Maybe it's time for our vocabulary to move on and to reflect modern circumstances more accurately. I'm in favour of dropping the word 'holiday', on the grounds that holiness is no longer part of the equation, and adopting in its place the American 'vacation', which seems nicely to evoke just the kind of evacuation we are currently experiencing.

Those of us who remain at home can enjoy the novelty of an un-crowded city - an opportunity not to be squandered. Yet there is also a sense of having been left behind, waiting for postcards from foreign parts. As a precaution against the onset of ennui it is best to keep oneself busy: and so I have indulged in an orgy of films, books, DIY and museums.

Watching four films in one week has put me in danger of overdose but it has also been a useful exercise in critical comparison. Here's what I saw: Only God Forgives,  a big name, big budget Hollywood production with a rich, painterly quality to the photography and a squalid little plot full of nasty, selfish, violent characters; Frances Ha, a low-cost, monochrome American indie, with a wittily scripted story of credible, likeable characters of the 'everyday' kind; Beyond the Hills, a sub-titled, Romanian production sensitively depicting the bleak lives of its characters set in a suitably bleak environment; and 13 Assassins (seen on TV), a sub-titled Japanese example of the trashy, Hollywood action genre which tells the story, one more time, of the good guy prevailing against evil by means of spectacularly gratuitous carnage.

I have also engaged with two novels: Infinite Jest, a modern classic so long and so dense that I can only bear to read it for 30 minutes at a time; and Lexicon, a nonsensical story written so obviously with a view to selling the film rights to Hollywood that I can see Carey Mulligan playing the main character even as I read. I would put it to one side but I have been trapped into finishing it by the authorial device of creating a mystery which will only be revealed on the last page. And I cannot cheat.

DIY, derided by cynics (and the cack-handed) as Damage It Yourself or, as a particular friend of mine prefers, Don't Involve Yourself, is actually something I enjoy. It affords me the satisfying pleasures of skilled manual labour which, once completed, really does entitle you to that "well-earned" reward - not necessarily a holiday, but perhaps a satisfying flagon of cider with which to wash down your ploughman's lunch. And so I tackled, with relish, the laying of a floor in a small bathroom, taking special pleasure in the skill with which I executed the curved cut around the base of the W.C.

And finally, a visit to the local Jewish Museum with a friend: we were keen to see their modest but promising exhibition of the Paris School of émigré painters - Chagall, Soutine et al. We decided to go on Friday afternoon but had to change our plan. Friday afternoon, it seems, is still regarded by some as a holy day.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Permanence:a thing of the past.

Having spent a week in London I am now back in Manchester contemplating the differences between the two places. They are superficially similar (scale aside) insofar as they are both densely populated urban areas, but each is really defined by its underlying raison d'être. London evolved from Roman times as England's centre of wealth and power and has since augmented its position as a super-wealthy, international metropolis. Manchester sprang from the loins of the industrial revolution and has had to learn to cope with its change of fortune post-industrialisation. In its heyday Manchester was at the forefront of social, economic and scientific innovation - universal suffrage, the free trade movement and the splitting of the atom are just a few examples - but those were the glory days.

In the last two weeks I have met up with two separate sets of Australian friends visiting the UK: perhaps they are taking advantage of our heat-wave to escape their winter down under? Whatever their reasons, it is gratifying that our friendships persist despite their distant migration. Last week I spent time with Australian#1 in London, where we had once lived; this week Australians#2&3, a couple, were in Manchester, their old home town: they wanted me to show them aspects of the city that have changed since their time here.

Actually quite a lot has changed: there are bars and restaurant chains everywhere, some of which look exactly the same as they do in Sydney or Melbourne. To be fair to these omni-present, indentikit establishments, they must have started life as the kind of independent businesses that bring vibrancy to the streets. Now commoditised, however, they overwhelm the individuality of whichever neighbourhood they choose to inhabit.

I had to look off the beaten track for something more uniquely Mancunian. Our first stop was a newly-built square which, although it contains all the said chains, has at its centre a novelty - a couple of temporary, pop-up bars. Quite how this works commercially I don't understand. Does their presence not diminish business for the surrounding permanent establishments? Or does it, conversely, attract more footfall to the benefit of all businesses? In any case it is an idea imported from London where the combination of high rents and shortage of ready capital gave birth to this alternative business model which, perversely, is becoming so successful that it is starting to show signs of emergent chain-itis.

In London, high property values have obliged the young, creative population to locate eastwards towards places like Shoreditch where they can find a compromise between cost and convenience. This has created new hotspots of cultural cool and hip activity. In Manchester there has been a similar effect, albeit on a smaller scale, where the Northern Quarter of the city centre does service as the bohemian part of town, its Victorian warehouses, workshops, shops and houses being re-cycled rather than re-developed. My friends were impressed when they saw this change although, again, it is not a uniquely Mancunian idea. But then we came across an unexpected thing: a pop-up cathedral.

I immediately grasped the potential for this concept. Traditional, big stone-built churches are generally under-utilised, their dwindling congregations struggling to justify their upkeep. By abandoning them in favour of pop-ups they could free up the existing, permanent buildings for use as social centres, schools, youth clubs, market halls etc. And the advantage that portable places of worship would have is that they could follow demographic changes in the population, re-locating to suit their audience. It's a viable new model for changing times, providing convenient places of worship at minimal cost. Manchester's pioneering days may not be over just yet.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Reading the Signs

While staying for a few days in a well-heeled suburb of Hampstead I was visited by an old friend who is here on holiday from Australia. As we walked she pointed out the proliferation of blue plaques on the houses in the vicinity – something I had not noticed but which she, with her tourist’s eye (or perhaps because they don’t feature in Australia), took a particular interest in. They commemorate famous people who once lived here and who, with the notable exception of Professor Freud, are known mostly for their contributions to the arts - actors, writers, poets, painters et al. Whereas, if someone were to collate a cluster-map of the distribution of blue plaques-by-celebrity-type around the country, the centre of Salford/Manchester would reveal the former presence of a plethora of innovative scientists and industrialists.

Hampstead remains so popular with art celebrities (those who can afford the postcode) that a walk on the Heath may often be rewarded with sightings of future blue-plaquers. But you must be careful of gawping in case you get entangled in the leashes of dogs being led en masse by professional dog-walkers. (The irony of employing someone to perform a task which should be quintessential to the process of bonding between pet and owner is, presumably, lost on those who are cash-rich but time-poor).

Meanwhile, down by the Thames, the Tate Britain has a major exhibition of L.S. Lowry’s paintings. His inspiration was the industrial landscape of Salford/Manchester which he painted during four decades from around 1925. His work was considered to be unfashionable – and ugly – by most of the British art establishment of his time, although its popularity has never been in question and as early as 1928 the critic Jessica Stephens saw a kind of beauty in Lowry’s landscape, although she was aware that most people would have to stretch their conception of beauty to encompass it.

 I was pleased to see so many of Lowry’s canvasses displayed in the magnificent classical galleries of The Tate where they demand serious consideration and challenge the definition of ‘beautiful’ art. In Lancashire’s industrial towns many people still live in the kind of street-scapes depicted by Lowry. Whether they consider their surroundings to be ugly is a moot point: I suppose the inhabitants of any place will choose, if they are able, either to stay or leave. But how many would choose on aesthetic grounds? And how many simply grow comfortably accustomed to their surroundings and stay put?

But, beauty aside, Lowry’s paintings elegantly depict the landscape and, perhaps more importantly, tell its real, social history as summed up by John Berger in his 1966 critique of the work: “The paintings are about what has been happening to the British economy since 1918”. And their presence, hung for all to see, at the heart of the splendour of London’s imperial wealth, dramatically illustrates his analysis of the effect that the “shift of power from industrial capital to international finance capital” had upon the nation. They serve as a reminder that millions of our fellow citizens still suffer from the effects of that shift: nor do they necessarily benefit from the present national economic model.

Before making our way back to Blue Plaquesville we sought and found one of those quirky little pubs that Londoners cherish. It’s a place of old world charm and character, hidden in a mews behind the grand houses of Kensington. It was once the haunt of lowly people – servants, ostlers and the like - but now serves as the after-work watering hole for be-suited men and the few remaining indigenous inhabitants. But soon the latter will all be priced out of the neighbourhood by billionaire foreigners seeking a safe investment for their dodgy cash. Perhaps then we can expect the appearance of a blue plaque in honour, not of an individual, but of a whole social class who once drank there?

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Past Perfect?

A highlight for me this week was the TV biography of Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-British architect, whose work is, among other things, visually striking. People are inclined to judge the architectural quality of buildings simply by their appearance which is, of course, a subjective call; but there are more objective measurements - such as fitness for purpose and ecological impact - on which the success of a building may be scored. And often overlooked are the intangible ways in which a building can affect our senses, shape our thinking and determine our actions: this, it appears, is where Hadid scores highly. Her designs deliberately test the boundaries of conventional architectural geometries in very imaginative and creative ways, the effect of which can lead us to change our perceptions of what a building should look and feel like. Although she has been based in London for 40 years, there is precious little of her work on the ground in the UK. Perhaps now that she is internationally renowned this will be rectified. 
Or maybe not. The British can be very traditional, as I was reminded when I went earlier in the week to the Victorian spa town of Buxton to see The Pirates of Penzance performed as part of - yes, you guessed it - the International Gilbert & Sullivan Festival. The plot is ridiculous but what the story lacks in credibility it makes up for with a healthy lampooning of the establishment and some jolly good songs - which may account for its enduring popularity. More to the point is that the performance was perfectly suited to the chosen venue, Frank Matcham's pretty Victorian Opera House. It was designed, as were the other grand buildings in the centre of Buxton, to accommodate the genteel productions and leisure activities of yesteryear, in which it succeeded to such an extent that those same entertainments are regularly reproduced in faithful detail more than 100 years later. Matcham was no Hadid but he was the expert when it came to designing theatres which had excellent sightlines and acoustics to accommodate productions without the benefits of projection and amplification. As a result, buildings such as his are inextricably entwined in a cultural pas de deux with the arts of the past.
A few days later I approached a giant white tepee which squatted, thumbing its nose, in front of Manchester's splendidly Gothic town hall. It was the venue for a contemporary jazz performance which I fancied to counterpoint The Pirates of Penzance. Perhaps others had made the physical journey from Buxton, the cultural crossover excursion from operetta to jazz, but G&S aficionados can be difficult to spot. They don't necessarily wear T shirts imprinted with lines of libretto, or sport tattooed hearts pierced by arrows and inscribed G.S. If any of them had come they might have been disappointed to find that, instead of a Pimm's tent, there was a makeshift bar stocked with local ‘real ale’ and non-country-specific Pinot Grigio. And if I had bumped into one of them we might have discussed the synergy between the avant-garde setting and the exploratory nature of the music played there.
But I didn’t. I was left to muse solo on why The Pirates of Penzance should attract so many more paying customers than any contemporary jazz gig I have ever attended. As John Peel (R.I.P.) once observed “today’s underground music is tomorrow’s pop” so maybe, one day, jazz will become more widely appreciated. Meanwhile the music of the past bids for our affections with the music of the present in much the same way as yesterday’s buildings vie with today’s.
And, further along the cultural continuum, Zaha Hadid imagines the future of our built environment while visionary musicians probe the limits of musical expression. Will someone please commission Hadid to design an auditorium for jazz so that, like Victorian operetta, it too may have a building appropriate to its spirit?