Saturday, 28 September 2013

Time Warp

My friend, who is in his sixties, just had his hair re-styled. I think it looks fab but a much younger acquaintance of his used the word "awesome" when complimenting him on the new look. My friend and I are not inclined to use that word in that way - if at all. It's not that we are averse to embracing change, but we already have a vocabulary which, when we first adopted it, probably sounded just as outlandish to our grandparents.
But the fact that language moves inexorably onwards is cause for celebration: if it didn't move, it would be dead - and it gets hard to communicate subtleties of meaning with dead language. When younger generation speaks to older generation we are bound to see the asynchronism of change, but we are still able to interpret meaning because there is the context of human interaction: “awesome” = “fab”, obvs. And there is a funny side to the juxtaposition of old phrases still in use alongside new ones: yesterday I spotted the signs Funeral Parlour and Body Shop above adjoining premises - which is the sort of irony you are not as likely to notice when you are speeding along in a car as you are when walking by at a leisurely pace.
More leisurely still is the prospect of floating along a canal in a narrow-boat - or so I thought when we were invited by old friends to spend a day cruising with them. They had come over from Canada specifically to pootle around the canal system for a few weeks and, if you think that's unusual, the first people we met at the first lock we negotiated had come all the way from Brooklyn, NYC for exactly the same purpose. I had looked forward to a relaxing day: the weather was warm and fair and we were equipped with a picnic and a bottle of dusky pink Cรดtes de Provence.  I'm still not sure whether it was by design or coincidence that the seven mile stretch of canal we travelled boasted 23 locks, but the experience certainly wasn't leisurely. It was hard work, involving winding gigantic gears, pushing heavy lock-gates and walking most of the way. It even included an altercation with another boat-person whom we had managed to upset by failing to follow some obscure but time-honoured procedure.
But, for those who don't like change, life on a narrow boat could be just the thing. On the canals change appears to be unwanted, which is just as well because the scope for it is severely limited: the shape and size of the boats will always be determined by the dimensions of the locks; the maximum speed at which they can go is determined by the mass of water they displace; the choice of destinations is unlikely ever to vary and, if you really don't want to adopt modern figures of speech, you can just float on by with a cheery smile and a nautical salute.
The paradox of the canal network is that it persists alongside the road, rail and airway networks, not because it is a useful addition to the infrastructure, but because it is a useless distraction from it. From time to time there may have been talk of incorporating it into the system for the purpose of carrying freight, but it has never happened because the system is un-modernisable and therefore un-economic.
And therein lies its attraction: this one-time marvel of modern engineering has become a refuge from progress, a place to go when you can't take any more change; a place where the phrase "go with the flow" will never sound dated.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Real-Life Drama?

I saw one of those classic films - Double Indemnity - not on TV but in a cinema, where you get closer to the original 'feel' of the production. The lights went down and the screen changed shape to the aspect ratio used in 1944. The scratched celluloid started to roll and I surrendered my senses to the monochrome entertainment of a bygone age - insofar as I was able.

For I was distracted from the magic by the details that distinguish past from present: such as the fashion of the time which required all men to wear hats out of doors; the primitive voice-recorder used in the office scenes; the way that everybody smoked - anywhere; the fact that all the people were thin and all their cars were fat.
And what must it have been like to experience this American film, in Britain, just after WW2 had finished? Americans appeared affluent, confident in their culture and years ahead in their material lifestyle. They had telephones, cars and supermarkets with fully stacked shelves. This level of affluence, and the social change that went with it, would be a long time coming in tired old Britain. It’s a great film but, given that the accurately detailed social backdrop came ready-made, and that the direction was top-of-the-range Hollywood, what really distinguishes it from others is the cunning, imaginatively conceived plot.

Within days I was making comparisons with a modern film, Rush, the story of the rivalry between racing drivers Nikki Lauder and James Hunt. In this case ‘plot’ is replaced by a dramatised account of actual events. It was made last year but is set in 1976 - which means that much of the production work went into replicating the costume, speech, behaviour and technology of the period in order to establish credibility with an audience who saw the events themselves and are still alive and kicking. And yes, I did spot one or two discrepancies – some only recently coined figures of speech, and the drinking of beer from bottles which, I am sure, was never done at the time – but, I wasn’t unduly distracted from the main point: the story.

So, which is the more difficult to achieve: inventing a dramatic story or dramatising a real-life story? I was pondering this in relation to my own experience one Monday morning during my recent solitary stay in London. I had woken up with a fuzzy head - the effect of over-enthusiastic socialising - and devised a simple plan to bring myself round to full operating capacity. It involved taking a walk to buy some of the particular bread I like, replenishing my pockets with cash and reviving my senses with coffee.

But I was too early: the shop had no bread. I bought some bananas so that I could get cash-back from the till but they didn't have enough money in it. I found an ATM half a mile away but it had been emptied over the weekend. I made my way towards my favourite coffee stall, a mobile unit set up to service the local office workers, but realised they would probably require cash payment and so made a lengthy diversion to find another ATM. When I finally got back to the coffee stall there was an ill-tempered queue and the two barristas were bickering.

My turn came eventually and they handed me the flat white I had been longing for. I walked to the park where I had planned to savour it in the sun but, with the first sip, I tasted the sugar they had put in by mistake. I couldn’t drink it and, lacking the will to go back, threw it in the bin.

Man Fails to Buy Coffee may not sound like much of a drama: but you couldn't make it up, I thought as I headed home, eating a banana.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Keeping Your Eye On The Ball

I have been trying to kick-start a book-writing project for some time now and, since popular wisdom prescribes solitary confinement for such a task, I have taken up my relative's generous offer of residence in his apartment while he is away for a couple of weeks. Now, as I pack my bag to return home, I can evaluate what I have managed to achieve.

I shall be sorry to leave this temporary refuge, a comfortable, spacious pad overlooking the river Thames at Wapping, but perhaps it hasn't been as conducive to creativity as I had hoped. The busy river is a killer distraction for a writer whose ability to concentrate for more than half an hour without a break is already in question. The window onto the watery world has tempted me too often to 'stretch my legs', leaving the keyboard for the kettle or (according to the time of day) the bottle.

At first, the sound of a foghorn or an especially powerful wake lapping the river bank would have me curious to see what was passing and, although the novelty of the moving tableau did wear off, it was always a temptation. I may have become accustomed to the wafting sounds of the tour-boat commentaries, the waxing and waning disco beats from the numerous party boats and the smack and thump of speedboats full of squealing passengers but, one Saturday morning, the sound of cheering voices drove me once more to the window.

I watched as hundreds of rowing boats, of all shapes and sizes, passed by in a riverine equivalent of a fun-run. Some of the rigs in the vanguard looked like serious contenders - sleek craft full of Lycra-clad muscle-men with determined expressions. But the ones which followed looked less serious, reflecting perhaps their modest expectations of winning. I was impressed by the imaginative branding of many of these teams, from the crew who wore identical chicken-head helmets, to the louche Battle-of-Britain pilots dressed in bits of RAF uniform, as if they hadn't enough to go around. There was a big, heavy boat manned by a dozen monks dressed in brown habits and, bobbing in its wake, a flimsy craft womanned by half a dozen ladies dressed in dayglo tutus and flying the flag of the Sugar Plum Fairies. The procession was followed up by a large vessel crammed with supporters and a brass band playing Michael Jackson's Beat It. As a land lubber I was amazed by the sight of so many people having so much fun in boats – and without life-vests.

But I needed to get down to serious work on my project and there was another distraction: I had offered, as part of a reciprocal arrangement, to help out for a day on my friend's project - painting the external facade of his three-story Victorian pub. The job required climbing scaffolding and embracing a machismo disdain for PPE (personal protection equipment): which was all very well until the bloke working on the level above me twice dropped objects (accidentally) onto my head. Not to worry though: the first was just a balled-up rubber glove and the second was merely the blade of a Stanley knife (minus its heavy handle). In future I will wear a hard hat whenever there is a bloke working above me. And, if I ever get to fun-row, I shall be wearing a life vest over my monk's habit.

Meanwhile, back at the writing desk, there is much to do and I see that my 'Quote of the Day' calendar has Balzac telling me "It is as easy to dream a book as it is hard to write one". I know.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Dis-united Nations

Last week I spent a couple of days in Worcestershire, a part of the country that likes to be known as the “Heart of England” because of its geographical centrality. But there is also an unspoken implication that it is England’s heart in the emotional sense: that in this place, as in no other, beats the healthy, resolute heart of the Nation. It’s not hard to understand why. The fecund farmland basking in the warmth of late summer sunshine looks, smells and sounds like the epitome of wealthy, pastoral England. And the locals, proprietors of all this splendour, also seem to be basking – in smug complacency. Their exchanges were friendly, yet confident, and imbued with a tone that expressed a kind of pity for us visitors, burdened as we are with the misfortune of living elsewhere.

Right now I am staying in the geographical and historical heart of London, where the feeling is not so much ‘centre of country’ as ‘centre of universe’; where the heartbeat is not steady and regular but high-paced and likely to result in stress-related disease, and where England is often regarded as another country. In my experience, England comprises many different countries, each of them laying its own claim to being that special place - the quintessential England.

Definitions of nationhood are problematic, which may be why we oversimplify them: the French eat frogs’ legs, the Germans eat sausages, the English eat roast beef etc. These popular definitions belittle cultures which are rich and mature but, as simplistic caricatures, they comfort us in our belief that each nation has its own, secure and eternally defined identity. But it’s not really true, for we still live within our beloved national boundaries like separate tribes, factions and classes bound in loose alliance with others.

The division of peoples into nations is not necessarily a good idea – as any nomadic tribe will tell you. International borders are often randomly drawn, forcibly imposed or both. The motivation is always economic gain - though it may be presented as “in the interests of national security” - and is effective only for as long as the inhabitants agree on common cause or can be coerced into doing so. Borders are disputed every day, sometimes farcically – as in Spain’s outrage over Gibraltar whilst it continues to hold on to its enclaves in North Africa, sometimes tragically – as in the Middle East.

Syria, regarded as a strong and united nation for the past generation, is now mired in civil war. Some of its factions believe they represent the true Syria, some fight for a more inclusive state, while others want to abolish Western imposed boundaries altogether and establish a pan-Islamic caliphate in the region. The resulting mayhem is un-containable: and the cause can be traced back to artificially imposed boundaries.

England’s last civil war ended in 1651, since when a parliamentary system has evolved to regulate the claims of the various factions and build a semblance of national unity. But it’s a fragile alliance: social classes are diverging and polarising, the current movement for Scottish independence is heightening the debate over devolution of power to the English regions and, all the while, amoral corporations are mocking our borders with their tax-evading tactics.

I was not born in England: my mother was foreign and the family lived abroad for years. I reside in Manchester through circumstance and choice; it’s not my home-town, which means I have no relatives nearby and no allegiance to a football team. On the other hand I'm not a refugee; I'm a privileged migrant with a duly acquired scepticism of nationality. I can happily say “I'm not from ‘round here”: which, to the millions of people around the world who have been forcibly displaced by border warfare, probably sounds like smug complacency.