Saturday, 30 November 2013

Nostalgic for Nostalgia

Now that Bulgarian and Romanian citizens are about to acquire the right to roam throughout the European Union, protectionists fear that hordes of them will board overnight buses to the U.K. where, as soon as the offices open, they will present themselves for social security handouts. Yes, the controversy over the pros and cons of immigration is in the news again. Do immigrants help to grow our economy and enrich the culture or do they drain our resources and exacerbate social division?

It is difficult to come to a rational conclusion on this question because, as with most evidence-based arguments, the "facts" are not verifiable unless you are an expert: you must take them on trust and, in this post-Snowden era, who can we trust? If you are unemployed and stuck on a council-house waiting list and see immigrants employed and housed before you it is understandable that you may take a negative view of the outcome, irrespective of rational argument.

But for most people the negative impact of immigration is less to do with tangible loss and more to do with nostalgia - a longing for something past. The Lincolnshire market town of Boston is an example of how an influx of foreign workers has changed the nature of a place in just 20 years. Some of the indigenous folk yearn for Boston to be the way it was before the immigrants arrived, but the realists among them could point out that Boston was not in a good way even then. Taking into account the Great Depression, World Wars 1 & 2 and rationing, you would need a misty-eyed return to the 1950's to see the place in its supposed heyday. Nostalgia is not all it's cracked up to be.

I discovered this when I decided on impulse to re-visit some of the music I had liked back in the early 1970s. I went along to a Band of Friends of Rory Gallagher gig (where, alongside the usual suspects, I was surprised to see quite a few people too young to have been fans first time around). The musicians were exceptionally talented and devoted to the spirit of the original material and, by the second set, they had the audience so enthused that even some of the grizzled old geezers were (sort of) dancing and/or playing air-guitar. Although I did not share their exuberance I stayed until the end, fascinated more by the audience and the technique of the performers than the music itself. What I had once found exciting now sounded repetitive and one-dimensional: a small dose of nostalgic indulgence, like a homeopathic medicine, had cured me of longing for the something past.

Rory Gallagher was inspired by the Blues, a non-native musical form and a well established example of benefit resulting from the cross-fertilisation of cultures. I'm sure there are others, high-brow and otherwise, but one of the most popular - and one which comes most readily to mind - is the availability of good foreign food. I have lately discovered a local takeaway that specialises in falafel and I made a point yesterday of going there. My favourite is the falafel wrap (medium) with salad and tahini sauce which, at £2.95, is not only good value but also proof that vegetarian food can be delicious.

Thank you, Mr. Falafel, for migrating to our country. Each time I buy a falafel wrap from you it reminds me of where and when I first fell in love with the delicacy: the remote Egyptian port of Taba where, after coming down from the ancient, mysterious monastery of St. Catherine, I had time to kill while waiting for the ferry to cross the biblical Red Sea to the exotic Jordanian port of Aqaba. On reflection, perhaps nostalgia is a recurrent, non-curable condition.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Dressing the Part

There is currently an exhibition at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery which features some of David Hockney's earliest work. Alongside the images there is information concerning the context in which they were made, which is helpful in explaining the artist's choice of subject matter. Even from the start his work was very distinctive, but he also adopted for himself an unusual personal appearance which helped to publicise and promote his 'brand'. In this respect I would liken him to Andy Warhol.

But the Hockney images were too familiar to detain me for long and I wandered into another room where, alongside the works of art, there are artefacts - manufactured 'real world' objects. Seeing them together focuses the attention on the overlap between art and craft (it's probably more than a lexicographical coincidence that the words 'art' and 'artefact' have a common first syllable but I'll leave it for other pedants to research). Perhaps the best works of either kind have one thing in common: they require skill in execution. In this respect I could only marvel at the astronomical clock made in 1787 by Thomas Barry. It has three faces which, between them, give simultaneous readings for time and phases of the moon; varying length of day and night; date and perpetual calendar (which automatically adjusts for leap years); positions of the stars, orbits of the moon and all the planets which were known at the time. If not art, it is a work of artistry.

I was briefly preoccupied with the distinction between art and craft in respect of my current project - writing a novel -  although, after minimal research, I concluded that craft is of the essence. Mindful of Samuel Johnson's dictum "What we hope ever to achieve with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence", I have adopted a methodical, craft-like approach to its execution, identifying the obstacles and tackling them, one-by-one.

The first (not ranked by importance) is ignorance: the fact that I have not read very many novels is not an advantageous starting point. To rectify this I have re-prioritised my reading list so that all the histories and biographies are now at the bottom. But despite my intensive effort, there is a lot of reading yet to do.

Next, having attended writing courses so that I can get guidance and encouragement from those who know, I have found that you get exactly that - guidance and encouragement - which leaves a lot of work still to be done. I have supplemented this by studying the ways in which novelists approach their work and learned only that these are many and various. Last week I attended an event at which Donna Tartt described to us her "tricks of the trade". Some were potentially useful but she is extremely meticulous - writing at the rate of one novel every ten years - which is similar to the rate at which I used to read them.

And now, with the abrupt arrival of winter, comes another, unforeseen obstacle - the cold. Sitting around for hours - as one must - musing about, mulling over and composing coherent sentences, is not an activity conducive to staying warm. Turning up the heating doesn't help: it induces sleep and stifles inspiration. What is the answer? It came to me in a flash: appropriate clothing; something warm and woolly; something comfortable and comforting; something - writerly; in short, a cardigan. Yes, the cardy is crucial kit for the writer. Maybe they do a suitably tatty-looking, pre-worn range at M&S?

At the book launch, of course, I will need something smarter, something carefully considerate of my brand: but there's plenty of time to worry about that.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Seductive Technology

New technology is so seductive. This week I was persuaded that it would be a wonderful experience to go and watch Gravity - the recently released film about space exploration - in IMAX 3D. I should have known better. The film is a triumph of presentation over content: the special effects are amazing but the story is not at all credible, the schmaltz factor is high and the dialogue comes straight out of the Hollywood Blockbuster Writers’ Training Manual. Those of you who may still be interested are advised to see it in IMAX 3D in order to get some sort of return on your investment. When it ended I had just enough time (skipping the credits) to hoof across town for a one-off showing of the classic Sunset Boulevard. I had hoped to find solace in old-style technology but, unfortunately for me, it was sold out:  such is the demand for nostalgia.
But technology and nostalgia can make good bed-fellows - as this week's good-news story illustrates. An old pal, last seen in 1974, tracked me down by asking Google if it had seen me around lately. It (Google) was able to trace the limited online information about me and point him in the right direction. Now we are back in touch and planning to drink beer together. These reunions - or continuations as I prefer to think of them - can be very satisfying. They allow us to reignite relationships that were extinguished, either by circumstances or carelessness. Another friend I am reconnected with in this way has contributed much to the back-story of my life with his own memories and connections. We share so many cultural markers (although his enthusiasm for The Grateful Dead is not one of them) that picking up where we left off has come naturally.
Reconnecting with old friends in the days before the internet, unless it happened by chance, was painstaking and time-consuming. Although this is no longer the case, there is possibly a downside to the ease with which it may now be accomplished: unwanted solicitation. Given that no effort is required, some people may now type your name into a search engine simply out of curiosity and, when they get a result, make inappropriate or unwanted contact. They may be someone you would rather not remember because you treated them badly; or someone you "went off" because they treated you badly; or someone who imagined they had a close relationship with you but for whom you never cared; or someone who is just too dangerous or nasty to be around. In such cases we may not thank technology for being so accessible.
Still, we can use our human sensitivities to shield us from these situations - or we can rely on the development of sophisticated screening software: law-enforcement authorities already monitor much of the traffic, and I hear that the police are developing a specialised search engine called Whodunnit? to harness the power of electronic social connectivity to the purpose of crime-busting.
Technology in itself is less interesting than its interplay with life on Earth - and beyond. The creators of Gravity must be given credit for the fact that, for all the digital trickery at their disposal, they understood the need to tell a human story with it. Technology must be made to serve. Which is why, this week, I took down the halogen spotlights installed in our bathroom back when they were all the rage. They have been casting their harsh, unflattering glare for too long. In their place is now an old-style glass globe which diffuses light in a way which is soothing to one's eyes - and reassuring to one's vanity.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Voices Off

Despite Lou Reed having just died, it was a perfect day: the sky was blue, the air was fresh and crisp and I was catching a train to the ancient city of Lancaster to meet an old friend with whom I share not only some personal history but also an interest in things historical.

Waiting for a train I had time for coffee in a cafe that has a view of the station entrance - perfect for people-watching. But, as it turned out, the day was to be more about people-listening, beginning in the cafe where two young men were in conference. One of them, with his volume control jammed on max, spoke in a strangulated, monotonous drone.  The other spoke (whenever he could) so quietly as to be almost inaudible. They were experts on the management of soil erosion, water tables and capillary fringes - a worthy and interesting subject, though here badly presented: the effect was like listening to one end of a phone call.

In the train carriage most people were solo and silently engaged in reading or social networking but there was one loud voice talking on the phone - a man in late middle-age with a rich, deep voice, slightly ragged from smoking but soothing to the ear. His accent was Lancashire, which was appropriate to his subject - a guide to rail destinations in the North West of England. It might have made for interesting listening but for the fact that it came with much repetition and that his evaluations of places were limited to either “nice” or “boring” - a sort of Trip Advisor for the undiscerning.

But at Lancaster Castle we were lucky to have a tour-guide who was blessed with a pleasing tone of voice, a carefully modulated volume control, sensitivity to his audience, a sense of humour - and fascinating subject matter: proof that information can be packaged and communicated agreeably.

Lancaster Castle has always been the embodiment of aristocratic power and de facto oppression of the people. From as early as 1196 until as recently as 2011 it has housed, among other institutions, a prison - and this continuity provides a reminder that English law is founded on nothing more than the protection of property. Of the 200 executions carried out at Lancaster, only 43 were for the crime of murder: the remainder were for theft of various kinds. The original holding cells - still intact – are dark, airless holes in the wall which served merely as accommodation for prisoners awaiting either hanging or transportation.

Later, when custodial sentences were introduced, habitable cells had to be provided to ensure the prisoners did not actually die in captivity. Consequently, in 1815, a new prison block was built along the lines of Bentham's panopticon design. It was still in use when the place closed in 2011. The Castle is a part of the Duchy of Lancaster, an estate owned by the Monarch for the purpose of generating an income, but now that it is no longer rented to the Home Office as a prison, HM’s advisors are canvassing for new ways to squeeze rent out of the property.

After the tour we took our lunch in a pub on Lancaster's now defunct dock-side (the river silted up long ago). The landlady was welcoming - perhaps because there were so few other customers - and we dined well on moules marinieres and burgers. But, as the beer went down, our discussions became a little heated and naturally attracted an audience. When, after a while, the landlady came over to ask whether we were scheduled to speak in the debate to be held at the nearby museum that evening, we got the message. Perhaps our own voices are not always as mellifluous and modulated as we imagine.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Marking Time

"The nights are drawing in": it’s one of those expressions we inherit from our parents. It doesn't make literal sense - nights can't actually do anything - but we know that it means nights are becoming longer at the expense of days and that clocks must be set back an hour to compensate. In my childhood this simply involved father re-setting the clock on the mantelpiece and the watch on his wrist. Later it became more complicated and involved everybody in the house fiddling with the digital displays on a host of electrical appliances. Nowadays the internet takes care of them all - except for that old VCR that we no longer use.

Whereas the re-setting of clocks is an adopted practice which has its origins in the industrialisation of society, nights have got longer ever since Earth first orbited the Sun. In any case there are benefits which, in our household, boil down to being free to watch more TV without feeling guilty. In the last ten days we have watched the first 15 episodes of Breaking Bad - and we have been to the cinema a couple of times. As a consequence I now appreciate two things in particular: one is the extent to which made-for-TV series have successfully borrowed techniques from cinematography; the other is the advantage they have in being able tease out stories and develop characters over an indefinite period of time.

But they should be careful not to squander such an advantage, given the quality of competition in the cinema. One film in particular, The Selfish Giant, is a paragon of what can be accomplished in the 90 minutes format. To say that it is a story of a few days in the lives of a couple of pre-pubescent boys from poor families in a northern British town is merely to outline the structure. That it is a powerful commentary on the social consequences of capitalism and industrialisation is closer to a description of its scope and ambition.

Coincidentally there is an exhibition at the City Gallery, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which resonates with the film. Jeremy Deller's assemblage of art and artefacts is essentially an exploration of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on popular culture. It reminds us of the origins of our present-day circumstances but it also comments implicitly on capitalism and industrialisation.  One exhibit is a poster displaying the rules of an early cotton mill which, shockingly, is no more than a tariff of fines payable by the workers in the event that any of them should happen to disrupt, in any way, the process of making profit for the employer. And just around the corner is an old clocking-in machine, the symbol of lifetimes sold.

But is this art? Consult Grayson Perry who, in the current series of Reith lectures, is addressing this very question imaginatively, amusingly and with an open-mind. Coincidentally (again) his work The Vanity of Small Differences hangs in the next gallery. It comprises a series of large tapestries which depict social mobility and the influence of class on aesthetic tastes - further evidence of our lives having been shaped by capitalism and industrialisation.

At the end of the week I visited Blackpool, a one-time village which the mill-owners of Lancashire developed into a holiday resort for their workers - not out of altruism, mind you. They built and owned the attractions which their workers paid to enjoy; they organised their mill shut-downs consecutively so that holidays were staggered. As a holiday destination it became fabulously successful but, now that its block of captive customers has disintegrated, it looks and feels like just another post-industrial town desperate for the clock to turn back.