Saturday, 27 December 2014

From a Tourist's Point of View

Experts tell us the Greek economy has collapsed by 30% but signs of hardship and distress have not been obvious to me as a tourist in central Athens. The place is awash with busy bars, cafes and restaurants; the pavements are crowded with shoppers; and the roads are full of traffic nose-to-tail. There are beggars, of course, but no more than I would encounter in central Manchester. Mind you I’ve only been here a week, during which time I have been seriously distracted by long, leisurely lunches, early evening ouzo and – oh, a lot of other cultural attractions.

A week is a long time in politics, however, and this particular week is crucial to the Greek parliament: it must agree on its choice of president or face the possibility of a snap election which may return a majority for the Syriza party which, with its determined anti-austerity agenda, would seriously screw up the European Union’s plans. (This could explain why I have begun to notice buses full of riot police on so many of the streets).

Despite my initial observations, Greece is undeniably bust. We tourists are doing our bit towards replenishing the country’s empty coffers, contributing 13.6 million Euros in the past ten months alone - a 10% year-on-year rise - but, despite our efforts, this is not enough to repay Greek debt to the EU and other lenders. And, as a means of direct aid, tipping restaurant staff generously goes only so far. More must be done and Syriza has a plan: write off the debts. Lenders are not too keen on this idea but, weighing the woes of lenders against the pauperisation of a society, it is hard to sympathise with them. To put it another way, if you owe the bank 10k and can’t pay, you have a problem: if you owe the bank 17 billion and can’t pay, the bank has a problem.

And all this goes on against the backdrop of Ancient Greece which is impossible to ignore. The remains of classical buildings are visible everywhere, historic artefacts fill a dozen museums and the myths and legends of the gods suffuse the language. Understandably, the troubles of modern Greece are not usually the main point of interest for tourists. Even when taking a break from formal sightseeing, lingering at pavement cafes, it is the Greeks themselves who are the object of our fascination. With their loose interpretation of indoor-smoking bans, lax approach to wearing seat belts and helmets and their disregard for tidy parking you have to admire their minor rebellions against the EU.

I’ve tried to make the most of my visit. I suppose I could have spent more time on the history but it’s surprising how quickly museum fatigue sets in and, with five millennia to go at, the best I can aim for is an overview. In this context, a week is not a long time.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Cathedrals of Culture

Manchester's London Road Fire Station, built in 1906 and now listed Grade II, has for the past 28 years been unoccupied and uncared-for. When the fire service vacated it back in 1986 it was bought by a hotel company which, despite promising otherwise, left it to rot. The Council has just launched a second attempt at compulsory purchase so as to give other developers a chance to secure its future. Assuming the CPO is successful, there remains the question of whether it should be converted into a hotel or a cultural asset. Not that the Council will necessarily have a say: the outcome will be determined by economics. My bet would be on it becoming a hotel.
The recently released Cathedrals of Culture, a collection of six documentary films about buildings including the Oslo Opera House and the Pompidou Centre, illustrates (among other things) how the various architects were free to design the buildings to fulfil specific functions, uncompromised by having to convert, say, a fire station into an arts centre. They appear to have succeeded admirably. But one of them, the 19th century National Library of Russia in Leningrad, now resembles a museum because technological advances have rendered much of its functionality redundant.
When Manchester central library re-opened this year after a three-year refit, some found it difficult to comprehend the changes. The main entrance now leads straight into an open coffee lounge-cum-display area full of interactive screens; to one side there are cosy booths for watching archive films; on the other side is an enclosed performance space; at the back there are banks of computers - and a few books - dedicated to local history. The main book collections are elsewhere in the building. In short, the interior has been modified to reflect the change in the way that a lot of information is now stored and accessed.
The librarians that I've encountered there seem pleased with their new working environment, although their expertise remains rooted in the past. I borrowed a couple of e-books (for the first time) and, having read them, wanted to 'return' them. I logged into my account but they were not listed there. At the library I asked why. The librarian looked frightened.
"I don't know much about e-books," he said "I'll ask Colin."
"Well," said Colin, "you don't 'return' them. They expire."
"Fine," I said "but why don't they appear on my account?"
"I don't know," said Colin. "Maybe my colleague can help."
Luckily, his colleague was familiar with this FAQ. "It's because the service is provided not by the library but by a third party," he explained. Three of us had learnt something serendipitously.
I went to get refreshment at the coffee bar. In front of me was a young woman, smartly dressed in a red suit and formal shoes, carrying under her arm a two-metre long aluminium step-ladder. She had ordered coffee and a muffin which she paid for and picked up without releasing her grip on the ladder. She strode purposefully away, to change a light bulb perhaps? Or erect scenery in the Performance Space? Maybe make a start on the Christmas decorations? Stick posters up in Kiddies' Korner? Fetch a book off a shelf even? Library life has certainly diversified.
There are some evenings when a glass of good claret is all I crave and that evening I had my eye on a bottle of Léoville Barton, generously presented to me some time ago. Before breaching it I checked on the vintage and was disappointed to read that, although it was rated excellent, it would not be at its best for another 28 years. I probably won't be around then, but I hope that London Road Fire Station will. (Applicants for the bottle must be under the age of 40.)

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Domestic Mystery Thriller

We were awoken at 03.20 on Monday by a loud noise. It wasn't an attempted break-in or an explosion: it was the sound of a cupboard door falling six feet to the kitchen floor. There had been no earthquake, it just fell off its fixings. As I picked it up to lean it against the wall I saw something else which had fallen to the floor, but noiselessly. It was a letter A, one centimetre high and made of rubber.  I put it on the counter in case it too might need re-fixing - although I couldn't think to what. Later that morning I asked my partner if she had lost a letter A. She looked at me sympathetically.

I had arranged to meet a friend for lunch so I left the cupboard door for later. As for the letter A, I consigned it to the same 'mysterious incident' category as the two coasters which had lately disappeared from their usual place on the sideboard. Arriving early at the restaurant I saw that most of the tables were laid out for big office parties and, knowing this would ruin any hope of an intimate lunch, I phoned my friend to divert him to a different part of town. (By now I was already planning to publish a map on Facebook for those who prefer to walk through town avoiding the hundreds of wooden Christmas Market cabins that have blocked all the pedestrian thoroughfares.)

We decided on a restaurant that had opened only the day before so they had no Christmas party bookings to disturb our tête-a-tête. On the other hand, being anxious to impress, they overdid the service with too-frequent intrusions. Still we managed - without trying - to lunch until late afternoon and in doing so took ownership of the day. I had time only for a brief nap before my next engagement, a Modernist Society illustrated talk on the saving of Preston Bus Station.

The tragedy of Preston's Bus Station is that it is a magnificent building in the wrong place. The Town Planning Dept. says it would make sense to demolish it; but who will trust their judgement when they put it there in the first place? It has just been reprieved by a Grade II Historical Buildings listing but this is not a guarantee that it will survive intact - or even at all. Most of the building is, in fact, a multi-story car-park and it would be a very useful facility to have at an airport - if only they could move it.

Two days later I found another letter A when I was installing a new printer in the study. (There isn't much wrong with the old one, it just needs the insides cleaning, but the time and trouble of dismantling it make no sense given the affordability of a replacement; although the new model requires different cartridges, so the stock in the cupboard is now redundant). I put the second letter A alongside the first one and looked around the room for objects that might have letters missing from them. I could see none.

That evening I attended a big band concert at the invitation of my friend who plays in the trombone section. The repertoire was not entirely to my taste, but the experience of seeing and hearing 35 musicians collaborating expertly is exhilarating whatever the programme. It was late when I got home, still humming White Christmas, but I kept an eye open for stray typographical characters as I prepared for bed. It was then I picked up my new slippers and saw that the soles had the maker's name stuck on in one-centimetre high rubber letters. The A's were missing.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

In Praise of Visionaries

At last the weather has turned cold and the cycle of our seasons is normalising: I can now wear the merino vest I bought in preparation. And it's good for the retail trade - the backbone of our economy - which will not be left with piles of redundant jumpers to dump later in the outlet malls. I just hope the bogeyman, climate change, is not playing tricks on us and this turns out to be a false start because I've also bought an enormous book - The English and their History by Robert Tombs, 891 pages, 1.7 kilograms - to see me through the long, chilly evenings and the SAD-prone days.

At first, daunted by its scale, I put the book aside for when I had a substantial chunk of free time but then, confronting my feeble procrastination, I took the plunge on Tuesday evening. From page one I was hooked. What I like about a good history book is that it enlightens the long view, the big picture and the broad context, usefully counterbalancing the insular short-termism that is the daily diet of our socio-political news-feed: especially in a week such as this when Osborne presented Cameron's Government budget. To say that they have an eye on re-election would be an understatement. To question their motives would be naive. They are, of course, defending the assets they acquired by conquest in 1066.

I 'm only up to page 71, but it is already clear that the English are, to some extent, still subservient to their Norman conquerors. (The name 'Cameron' is thought to be derived from a Norman baronial name - Cambernon. The name 'Osborne' is Viking in origin, but the Normans were Vikings who had settled in France before crossing the Channel for their England-grab). And if this all sounds like a conspiracy theory, just drop the word theory: there is strong evidence of the actuality (follow this link to get started!). Our Normans do not appear to be inclined to work for the benefit of all. For example the visionary concept of the European Union - "the first time in history that a bunch of grown-up nation states have had the wisdom and maturity to abandon some of their precious sovereignty for the greater good"* -  is of no use to them.

Talking of visionaries, Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey is once more on general release and, on seeing it again after 40 years, I was amazed by his prediction that Hilton Hotels would be providing the space-station accommodation (Virgin may actually beat them to it, but we get the point). He also knew that fashion would be crucial, even in space. The appointment of Hardy Amies as costume designer was inspired: those snazzy suits sported by the civilians in the Hilton conference facility are in vogue again. But the treachery of HAL the computer is the most significant prediction. The danger of conferring artificial intelligence on machines has cropped up more recently: I think Professor Stephen Hawking must have popped down to his local Odeon this week, bearing in mind his timely warning that we should be very afraid of AI.

But I am more optimistic. Certainly HAL was dangerous, but HAL was working in space with no one around to moderate its behaviour. Here on earth the Health & Safety at Work Inspectorate would monitor it for anti-human tendencies. If each nation had a HAL (an updated model) programmed to formulate government policies, we could eliminate those interminable, expensive and ineffectual humanoid international negotiations. The HALs could commune together using their algorithms to make rational decisions about asset ownership, wealth distribution, the elimination of poverty and armed conflict - and the reinstatement of the seasons. AI: what's to fear?

Saturday, 29 November 2014


For many days an unwanted tea-tray was propped against the wall next to our back door. It was waiting to be re-cycled via the charity shop next to the railway station so, on my way to catch the 10.37 to Liverpool, I dropped it off. I've donated many redundant possessions to that shop and I've noticed that the ladies (never a man) behind the counter don't even look at what I plonk in front of them. They treat objects which I consider useful and of some value with exactly the same lack of interest as they do a trivial ornament. They look at me and say "Thank you so much. Do you have a gift-aid card?" Still, I made sure the tray was clean.

Before leaving home I read about a housing regeneration scheme in Stoke-on-Trent, the former epicentre of pottery manufacturing long enmired in what appeared to be terminal decline. But all is not lost, apparently. During its heyday the workers acquired formidable skills and the good news, for those who remain, is that they are in demand once more. The surviving companies are having some success in the markets where the "Made in Stoke" label still retains a cachet. And well-regarded designers are locating their workshops to Stoke so as to take advantage of the skills and facilities there. Recognising this, the housing scheme aims to foster communities of people rooted in the city, its heritage and its future.

Among the examples quoted to illustrate the potteries' finest achievements were the Minton Peacocks, four-foot high majolica facsimiles, brilliantly painted and glazed. Twelve were made but only nine are accounted for, as a result of which they are extremely valuable. I know it's a mere coincidence (these things do not 'happen for a reason') but, later that day, the first thing I noticed at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery was - a Minton Peacock. Normally I would have walked past such a piece with no more than a nod at its irrelevant magnificence but, this time, I just had to stop and examine it. I admit that, while pottery peacocks don't do it for me, they do have a certain presence.

Actually I was at the Walker to view the exhibition of works chosen for the John Moores Painting Prize, having earlier been at the Tate where there is a lot of Andy Warhol's output on display. Maybe it's because Warhol's work is so familiar that I was less interested by it than I was by the freshness and variety of expression in the prize paintings.  Incidentally, the manager of the Walker told me that we have Margaret Thatcher to thank for the preservation of Liverpool's permanent collection of art: she nationalised it so as to save it from being sold off by the bankrupt city council of the day. Whether it's true or not, his anecdote did prompt me to take a closer look at the collection.

Returning to Manchester I saw that the station concourse had acquired some of the trappings of Christmas. Tesco had erected a tent and its people, dressed in elf costumes, were offering little plastic cups of champagne to passers-by. It seemed a counter-intuitive sort of marketing ploy for a company whose share price has recently been ruined by scandalous misrepresentation of its accounts, but I may go again tomorrow to see if there's any left.

Then I dropped into the charity shop, ostensibly on the lookout for interesting novels, but with a surreptitious eye on the china ornaments and bric-a-brac. Unfortunately coincidence did not repeat itself:  there were no four-foot high pot peacocks. And even if someone were to bring one in, I'm sure the ladies would make no comment.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

From the Customer's Point of View

All I wanted was to sit down with a cup of (decent) coffee and watch for a while as the world went by. But, modest though it was, my ambition was thwarted. I'd been sitting in Carluccio's for 15 minutes without being approached by a waiter before I realised that the place was under-staffed and much of the world was going by while I remained thirsty.

I decided to cut my losses and go elsewhere - a place I remembered in a nearby back street, a ramshackle independent cafe called Tarkk whose proprietors claim to be "passionate" about coffee. And so they are: if only they were equally passionate about customer service the place would be great. I joined the short queue at the counter where, without a smile, they took my order - and my money - and instructed me to take a seat. After the by now customary wait of 15 minutes I approached the counter to ask how they were getting on. The ensuing consultation between the three staff members resulted in another instruction to sit down but no acknowledgement that they had clean forgotten to make the coffee. An apology would have been nice - accompanied by a 'courtesy' croissant perhaps - but neither was forthcoming. I sat obediently, feeling somehow to blame and fretting that perhaps I hadn't followed their required procedure.

And so it was that what ought to have been a mindless morning routine became a contemplation of comparative business models. On the one hand the corporate, Carluccio's, whose success depends on perfecting a system for delivering customer satisfaction; on the other the independent, Tarkk, whose success depends on - the same thing. It's not all about the coffee.

Carluccio's failed because the waiter was either unable to cope or not sufficiently motivated to make up for his co-workers' absence. Otherwise it's a successful, expanding business with a good understanding of the need for powerful branding (a jolly, fat Italian chef with a catchy name); consistency of offering in the tried-and-tested MacDonald's manner; stylish, modern interiors; a standardised menu and a usually robust system for delivery.
I wanted Tarkk to please me but it conspired not to, leaving me instead with the impression that its modus operandi is designed for the convenience of the proprietors and/or those who work there. The obscure name (trikky to spell) may have some significance to whoever devised it, but to me is just weak branding. The space, furnished with disregard for comfort and disdain for interior design, reeks of cheap recycling. As a small and probably underfunded business, it could and should have deployed its biggest asset - personality - when it most needed to. It's not all about the coffee.

Not that I have become obsessed with 'customer satisfaction' but, when I went later  to see the work of German artist Sigmar Polke at Tate Modern, the topic was still on my mind. It's a retrospective exhibition covering the years 1963 - 2007, which means that there's a lot of art on the walls. In fact, considering the entrance fee of approximately £12, the show is rather good value for money. But Polke was a great experimenter with new techniques and by the time I was halfway through the galleries I began to tire of work which seemed to have been made more for the sake of the process than the expression. Just show me the art, I thought, never mind your systems of delivery.

On my way home I paused at a falafel street-stall. The cheerful operator, sensing my interest, insisted I try a sample. It was delicious. I made a purchase and, strolling happily on my way, realised I was experiencing real 'customer satisfaction': and it wasn't all about the falafel, either.

Saturday, 15 November 2014


Christmas has come early in our home; we're sending out cards already. The reason for the premature posting is to include change-of-address stickers which will ensure that we won’t have to go to our old place to retrieve cards sent by people who don’t know we have moved. The stickers also mitigate the 'humbug' factor to which I am prone: it pleases me to be able to tack a practical function onto a customary activity of questionable validity (why would I celebrate the birth of the son of god when I don’t believe a word of it?). Despite that, I can't deny the indelible mark left on my psyche by years of traditional, family Christmases. Shared cultural history, after all, is what binds society and fulfils our need to belong.

The multitude of artificial, blood-red poppies spilling out of the Tower of London into the surrounding moat has been criticised as being too "pretty" to be a fitting memorial to those who died in war, yet its popular appeal is evident and may help to perpetuate the memory of those who died. On Remembrance Sunday I was present for part of a ceremony held outside our Town Hall. Not close enough to see or hear the homage, it was the sound of a canon fired to mark the start of the silence which really caught my attention. Canon-fire is something which troops must get used to but, for civilians like me, it is exceptional and dramatic. The sound exerted its authority: all stood still with heads bowed (except for a few tourists who had strayed un-knowingly into the scene). The occasion served me up an emotional bond with the fate of those - especially family - who died in service but it also reminded me how fortunate are the men of my own generation who were never required to put ourselves in that position.

Two days later, on Armistice Day, I was caught off-guard in Marks and Spencer's socks department having forgotten that the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is earmarked for remembrance also. On this occasion there was no canon-shot: instead a 'ding-dong' followed by an announcement. The voice on the loudspeakers was not that of a grand establishment figure but of an ordinary-sounding female employee. It could have sounded mundane, but in the voice was such unaffected sincerity that its effect was as powerful as any canon-shot. The lights dimmed and all those around me stopped to observe the silence - with less ceremony but no less a sense of solemnity than had pervaded Sunday's event. Afterwards I heard someone complain that some "foreigners" had not observed the silence and that "they should observe our customs". But was this fair?

The previous day I had gone with a friend to Lancaster where there is a newly erected memorial to the African slaves shipped as part of its trade (before the River Lune silted up it used to be an important dock). We also took a walk around nearby Sunderland Point, a low-lying finger of land which extends between the Irish Sea and the estuary. The word "sunderland" means a place where people and merchandise can leave or enter a country and, sure enough, this is what it once was. Nowadays it's just an isolated, wind-swept place with a handful of houses and the remains of a wharf, but it is remarkable for one thing: here, on a patch of unconsecrated ground by the shoreline, is the grave of one of those slaves. They called him Sambo but who knows if that was his real name? His grave is modest but its symbolism is potent: he is just one of the many who suffer a lonely death a long way from home, family, friends and the culture to which they belong.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Do Keep Up!

There are certain activities which stretch neither body nor mind but which are beneficial nonetheless: ironing shirts while listening to a CD of The Buena Vista Social Club, for example, offers a calm hour of respite from the stresses of life - the perceived pressure to achieve, to excel, to create, or simply keep up an active social diary. Not that I am always engaged in such 'displacement activity' - as it is unkindly labelled by the Achievement Police - but from time to time I do wallow in the comfort of its non-competitive triviality. And so it was that I found myself recently painting a floor while listening to a remake of one of the 'lost' recordings of the revered 1950s radio comedy show, Hancock's Half Hour. Still funny after all these years - even, so it was said, to those hearing it for the first time - it must have been ground-breaking when it was conceived. Some claim it was the first real sitcom.

I realise that you don't get to create anything ground-breaking by pottering around the house: you need to be driven by a combination of talent and ambition - and not all of us are.  Fortunately there are such people (ref. Ian Dury in his song There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards) even though their achievements are not necessarily appreciated by their contemporaries. I may have encountered this phenomenon last Friday at a sparsely attended performance by Third Hand, the UK's only dedicated puppetry-and-opera company, whose imaginative show, Puppet Leider, includes a comedic interpretation of Purcell, a moving presentation of Britten's Canticle II and a witty staging of work by contemporary composer Jonathan Dove. All this packed into 90 minutes!

At the established end of the spectrum there's the Late Turner exhibition currently at Tate Britain. Given his vast output in watercolour and oil, it is evident that Mr. Turner had no time for displacement activity. In fact his splendid, purpose-built London showroom eventually fell around his ears, so uninterested was he in the everyday tedium of things like maintenance. The exhibition focuses on the degree to which his technique became impressionistic long before Impressionism was 'invented'. Traditionalists at the time were inclined to attribute the technique to his failing eyesight or advancing senility rather than any intentional distillation of the elements of painting. I like the late paintings - especially Rain, Steam and Speed or The Fighting Temeraire - much more than the earlier, classically themed works. But then I do have the benefit of hindsight.

Another pioneering artist, Egon Schiele, is currently being shown at the Courtauld Institute. During the years from 1910 to 1919 he produced works depicting the human body in startlingly frank, 'non-classical' poses which, at the time, were considered by many to be unacceptably explicit (he was jailed briefly for "public immorality"). Eventually his work became more generally appreciated, though it took a long time, The Radical Nude being the first ever museum exhibition in the UK devoted entirely to his work. Even now there is no major work by him in any British public collection. Had he not died at the age of 28 he might have been able to prove the case for his work and - better still - developed it further.

Changing current opinion is clearly not easy. I like this explanation of why, proffered in the 17th Century by Francois De La Rochefoucauld: "It is more often from pride than from ignorance that we are so obstinately opposed to current opinions; we find the first places taken, and we do not want to be the last." In the light of which it's clearly time to swallow hard and elbow my way towards the front of the queue.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Be Sure to Have a Plan 'B'

The other evening I attended a talk on 'masterplanning' organised by the Manchester Modernist Society (that's Modernist as in architecture). It provoked in me feelings of both admiration and disappointment; admiration at the vision of the master-planners and disappointment at the mangled outcome of their ideas. The grand designs they proposed for post-war development of the university campus and its integration into the surrounding community, presented in colourful drawings and meticulous cardboard models, had been retrieved from the archives and were presented on a giant screen. I marvelled at their ambition.
Hopeful vision was not in short supply during the post-war rebuilding of Britain but those were difficult times: the economy and the built environment both had been severely damaged. Furthermore, the inner-city site earmarked for this particular development was already populated by a mix of buildings - academic, industrial and residential - some new, some old and some derelict. I can see why piecemeal progress was inevitable under such circumstances. In the event, one masterplan succeeded another until individual vision became diluted. And all the while building designs were compromised by budget cuts and planning restrictions. Today, with masterplanning in mind, a walk through the campus becomes an archaeological exploration in search of those elements of the plan(s) which were realised. I lament the unfulfilled utopian visions of the planners and am disappointed by the compromised outcome.
But disappointment is a hazard we face daily - and here's one I should have seen coming: a film called Fury. I had been seduced by the trailer into believing this might be an exciting tale of WWII derring-do but the reality was just an updated version of the same old Hollywood clichés. The next day I fared better with the British film Pride, based on the true story of a group of lesbians and gays who, despite having their own struggles with the establishment, formed themselves into a group to raise money to support the miners during the epic strike of 1984-5. Pride is as British in its conceit as Fury is American - and the cost of its production must have been about the same as the budget for refreshments on the set of Fury. But the one thing the two films do have in common is their single-word titles, neither of which I find either intriguing or sufficiently descriptive of the respective stories. And whilst Fury might be a more appealing title than Brad Pitt Wins the War Single-Handed and Helmetless, it is less honest than, say, Tanks Ahoy!  As for Pride, I would have preferred the esoteric LGSM (Lesbian & Gays Support the Miners).
But the week has not been all about cinemas and lecture theatres: there have been pressing concerns, one of which was the need to do something about my over-grown sansevieria (a houseplant better known by the more descriptive vernacular, 'mother-in-law's tongue', because of its sharp-edged leaves). This, and the fact that the broadband dongle which I managed to get working - despite Vodafone's best efforts to deflect my phone calls - has now ceased to work, may be reasons why I didn't sleep well on Tuesday night.  It's well known that anxieties - however minor - become magnified during the troubled hours of sleeplessness. But which came first: anxiety or sleeplessness? And why is it that sleep, a function so essential to our well-being, can be so elusive at times?
The following morning everything fell back into perspective: a trip to a garden centre (is there no better word to describe a place than 'centre'?) resolved the sansevieria issue; and as for Vodafone, I resolved to approach the task of calling in a calm but doggedly determined manner (after I had taken a nap). So far this has produced no result but I remain philosophical: life is apparently oblivious to masterplans.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Coffee: A Nation Divided

I've adopted a new coffee bar in town as my favourite. It's a comfortable, tranquil place, the baristas are friendly and they make the coffee expertly with knowledge, pride - and beans, dark-roasted, Italian style. But I do have a quibble: although I like cappuccino I am becoming frustrated by its uniform ubiquity. Where can I get a lightly-roasted bean? Whatever happened to cafetieres? Then I saw a scene in a TV documentary which showed, in some distant province of England, a customer ordering coffee in a high street cafe. The proprietor shamelessly dipped a spoon into a catering-size tin of instant granules, mixed them with hot water in a mug and charged him £1 for the beverage. Is this the alternative offer?

I realise that the native culture of England is far from homogenous, although I came to that knowledge relatively late in life. (I attribute this to my upbringing - educated to become a model employee, ensconced in the culture of the armed forces of an empire in steep decline. Ours was not to reason why etc.) Not until I went away to university did I have my first face-to-face encounter with other English tribes, notably northerners (one of whom convincingly demonstrated how startlingly more vituperative curses can sound when uttered with northern vowels - try it yourself, at home).

My point is that broad national unification is a good thing - as long as it allows sufficient cultural diversity to ensure the expression and development of new ideas. The alternative - tribal conflict - is too debilitating to contemplate. The unification of England and, later, the rest of Britain into one polity was a long and bitter process during which coercion and subjugation were the primary means employed. Lately that unity has been tested (by more democratic means) and it would be naive nowadays to think of national boundaries as fixed, immutable or even "natural". Boundary disputes are inevitable: nation states come and go, some more quickly than others. In order for unity to endure, it is necessary not only to have shared interests, such as prosperity and security, but also more permanently binding agents, the first of which is a common language.

A current exhibition at the British Museum, Germany: Memories of a Nation, got me thinking about how comparatively uncomplicated it must have been to create a British nation. The story of Germany is confused by - among other things - the fact that it has so many neighbours and its territorial shifts have been so frequent, whereas Britain's island status has at least ensured a degree of geographical integrity. The art and artefacts comprising the exhibition are, therefore, not necessarily from Germany as defined by today's borders. In seeking to trace the roots of German identity within Europe through 600 years of cultural commonalities, the curator has assembled a necessarily diverse collection of objects. Among these is a copy of the Bible translated by Martin Luther in 1534 into the commonly spoken dialect of the German people, thereby loosening the stranglehold the Church had established on interpretation of the Gospels (one year later Coverdale published the first complete plain English translation). Now, with something comprehensible to read, Gutenberg's invention really came into its own.

I may have been lured into the exhibition by Bauhaus and the Beetle but I came out with a more profound understanding of how it might feel to be German and a strong desire to be more European. I found myself a pub where, over a pint of Suffolk ale made with Austrian hops, I fantasised about my ideal European Union - one where 'national boundaries' are redefined as 'cultural guidelines'; cappuccino is only one of many options on the menu; and the English language is de rigueur.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

On a Scale of 1-10...

My heart sank when my partner decided to buy a new laptop: I foresaw a stint of duty at the IT helpdesk. I am no expert but, in the land of the clueless, he who has an iota of knowledge is in demand. Since our household is fully committed to Microsoft (i.e. ensnared in its systems and afraid of the complications of disentanglement) the migration from old to new laptop involved "upgrading" from Windows 7 to 8 and, to give an idea of the complications involved, one entire morning (mine) was spent persuading our printer to cooperate with this undertaking.

This pales to insignificance when compared with the week-long saga involving Vodafone and its no-longer-compatible dongle. Communicating with big tech companies is notoriously difficult for those who favour the old fashioned pick-up-the-phone approach. While I concede that finding a Microsoft phone help-line is unlikely, some of the companies closer to home, such as the inappropriately named TalkTalk, do have phone numbers buried deep in their contact information. But the thing to remember is that, although you might very much want to talk to them, they are not inclined to talk to you. They have more cost-effective systems.

The first thing they advise you to do is trawl through a list of FAQs that do not touch on your problem; then you are urged to follow threads in user-forums frequented by desperate, pleading technophobes; after that there are long-winded articles published on "knowledge bases"(who has time to become an expert in all this stuff?); or there is live-chat (email) with people who may or may not be able to resolve your problem but for whom I feel sorry, doomed as they are to spend their days dealing with frustrated customers attempting to vent their spleen via a keyboard when all they really want to do is shout.

After all this what do you get? A Satisfaction Survey - Did our operator today solve your problem? Yes or No. (There is no provision to answer "I'm not sure yet since I have to reboot my system and start all over again".) On a scale of 0-10 how likely are you to recommend TechEmpire to a friend? (I would really like to answer "my friends are very dear to me").

In any case recommending anything to anyone should be done only if hedged around with provisos. The Albanian Scouser who fitted my new ceiling was a very skilled and efficient worker who did a good job. He was also a charmingly well-mannered person with a lively and enquiring mind. Would I recommend him to someone else? Yes, but: that someone else might have different expectations, standards, peccadilloes etc. - and they might not be able to understand a word he said. Let's just say that I would feel comfortable making an introduction. Recommendations can so easily rebound.

Last evening my friend was in town and we met up to do some of our favourite things: wine, beer, food and jazz. Being the home-town host I was confident of being able to deliver the best possible experience in each commodity, but it was not to be. The wine bar, chosen for its unusually comprehensive list, was closed to customers because of a private event. The restaurant, which had received a rave review in the national press, was underwhelming. The jazz gig had its moments but they were too few-and-far-between to persuade us to stay to the end. If it weren't for the plentiful choice of good beers - and bars which stock them - our satisfaction score-card might have looked zero-heavy.

Which reminds me: my partner hasn't yet returned the Satisfaction Survey I emailed her.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Built-in Culture

If you were to walk past the building I live in you probably wouldn't notice it. Although it's old - circa 1840 - and quite handsome, it doesn't differ from the other buildings in the block and so doesn't stand out from its fellows. Presently we have contractors in - as is the way with old buildings - fixing the ceiling, which involves scaffolding, noise, dust and general disruption, so I'm spending a lot of time elsewhere.

One place where I found sanctuary recently is in a building, from the same period, about a mile away. Previously I've walked past it many times without noticing it. When originally built as a villa for well-to-do middle-class families, it was set on a spacious plot in a green-field development on the edge of town. Over time, however, its salubrious surroundings became compromised by the encroachment of high-density housing for the working class, its garden was sold in the seventies for the building of a block of flats, and any vestige of its former prestige was buried in the camouflage of its higgledy-piggledy surroundings. Now, in the interest of preserving a slice of heritage, the house has been restored to its former glory and elevated to a degree of national celebrity: the refurbished doors were opened to the public last week to celebrate its new status as a museum. For this is where Elizabeth Gaskell lived with her family from1850 until her death in 1865, during which time she wrote most of her best-known novels.

It's not unusual to come across houses which have been the homes of famous people, although sometimes there are surprises like, for example, the modest terraced house in Audenshaw which bears a blue plaque marking it as the early home of Frank Hampson, creator of the comic character Dan Dare. While he may be less of a household name than, say Banksy, his imaginative creations had a significant cultural influence on millions of us Englishmen brought up in the 1950s. Chancing upon his birthplace, I was suffused with the comfortable feeling of "belonging". Dan dare and I are both products of a linear, indigenous culture: I could sense his origins, empathise with his ethos. In the case of Elizabeth Gaskell's house, the same is true, albeit on many more levels than at first might be supposed.

Elizabeth Gaskell, acclaimed novelist, is further distinguished by the fact that, as a woman in a male-dominated profession, the odds were against her becoming successful. Reading her books is a way to understand the workings of a society which was changing fast around her: but visiting her house/museum adds other dimensions to that understanding. For one, it affords an insight into how she was able to cope with motherhood, wifely duties, charitable works and writing: she had the help of five servants. For another, it becomes apparent that the house was a cultural hub of considerable significance. The list of genuinely "household" names associated with it forms a remarkable catalogue of influential figures of the time and a reminder of the extent to which artistic creativity and political radicalism abounded in and around the first of the industrial cities. Charlotte Bronte stayed there several times; visitors included Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Holman Hunt. Charles Hallé taught one of her daughters piano. Family connections included the Wedgwoods, the Darwins and the Nightingales. I don't think I shall ever walk past a house again without speculating on to what extent I am culturally indebted to it.

Maybe I could order one of those blue plaques for our building. It might be simply - but intriguingly - inscribed "Wonderman was here". That would make it stand out. The contractors could fix it while they're here with their ladders.

(The Gaskells' House)

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Tranquil Countryside?

The public space in front of our central library is being re-modelled and the scheme involves repositioning, renovating and enhancing the Lutyens-designed cenotaph. This part of the project was completed last week in time for the scheduled war-commemorative ceremonies. It incorporates elegantly curved low walls and benches in Portland stone, designed to enclose a space of "quiet contemplation" in front of the monument. Not everyone, however, appreciates the sentiment: skateboarders and trick-cyclists have already begun to use the stones as a practice facility, causing both emotional and physical damage in the process. Outrage is building and plans are afoot to thwart them.

I would have liked to stay in town to lead a vigilante posse against them, but we were committed to going away last weekend. I prefer not to travel on a Friday evening because everyone else has the same plan, but we were not going far - an hour's drive to Blackpool. Unfortunately the usual Friday evening congestion was compounded by road-works on the M6 and the fact (unknown to us) that Blackpool's famous illuminations had been switched on. Three hours later, in the centre of Blackpool, we were finally able to peel off from the queue of vehicles inching towards the seafront light-show.

What had brought us to Blackpool that evening was an obligation to attend a rubber-chicken dinner, but we planned to make the most of our trip by extending it to do some walking in Lancashire afterwards. On Saturday morning we were able to drive unimpeded along the town's five-mile seafront which, in the plain light of day, presented an opportunity to marvel at the phenomenal popularity of the place. It is, admittedly, in decline as a holiday resort - but was it ever an attractive town? Its buildings - one or two excepted - are modest, many are tawdry and the layout of the whole place appears to be random, not designed to impress. But I suppose the aesthetics of the built environment are of no consequence to the mass of visitors whose purpose is holiday fun. We drove to the next town, Fleetwood, and its more elegant seafront where the main attraction seemed to be the model boat club-house and pond.

Our destination was the western edge of the Forest of Bowland, where the camping site we had chosen - for its convenient location - was a little too close to the M6 and its surprisingly loud, insistent roar. The proprietor turned out to be a friendly chap who, with little prompting (and without mentioning the background noise), told us of his all-consuming work: filling in application forms for charitable funds to get money for the village's public amenities. Before leaving us to resume his work he pressed a feedback form into my hand. I thanked him and wished him luck, raising my voice to compete with the sound of a west-coast mainline train which was whizzing past us in the near distance.

Still, there were ducks' eggs for sale, left in a box with a jar for the money. We bought half a dozen and later made them into an intensely yellow frittata. And the walk, advertised as "offering impressive views without too much exertion", lived up to its promise. For the next five hours we trod various terrains: over low-lying fields; across streams; into wooded valleys; up to a trig point and down through deserted lanes back to the village. The only constant feature throughout was the drone of the invisible M6. But the weather was ideal and the exercise built a keen appetite for aperitifs and a hearty supper. I slept well that night - albeit with ears plugged.

Back in the city the next day, I went to check on the cenotaph. No further damage had been inflicted. In fact, it was noticeably quiet there: ideal for a spot of contemplation.

Friday, 26 September 2014


Two weeks ago there was an unusual event: the pavements in our vicinity were jet-washed. The following week there was another: a team of litter-pickers got to work on the streets. Pleased but puzzled, I asked myself some questions. Had the city council finally noticed that the pavements had begun to smell? Had it finally acknowledged that human operatives are needed to reach the nooks and crannies where the sweeping machines can't reach? Where had it found the money to pay for enhanced cleaning at a time when hand-wringing austerity is the default? Eventually I found my answers by joining the dots: the Labour Party's annual national conference was about to open in the city and our Labour Party-dominated council would be keen to create a good impression.

Now the conference is over, the litter-pickers have disappeared and we, the residents, have to cope (without counselling) with dashed expectations. But we all must learn to manage our expectations if we are to avoid either being disappointed or falling into a slough of bitter cynicism. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival - currently being staged - is a case in point. Given that there are no food specialities associated with the city, it should be no surprise that the stalls  offer only take-away meals - pizzas, hot-dogs, burgers and suchlike - none of which is special. On the other hand, because Manchester still has several good, family-owned brewers, the beers are worthy of celebration. Expect, therefore, no hand-rolled cheeses to take home but rather a few beakers of decent ale to wash down the street-food of your choice and you will not be disappointed. Consider also that if progress is to be made towards excellence, any festival is better than no festival. Let's think of it as "Work In Progress" - WIP.

To live here is to experience full-on the implications of WIP. In this formerly industrial city, there is a will to establish a new economic engine and much is being done to that end: knowledge-based businesses are being encouraged; buildings are being replaced or recycled; infrastructure and transport systems are being modified to accommodate changing demographics; plans for the long term are being drawn up and collaboration with the wider region is being discussed. Even so, there are projects recently completed which already look too modest in ambition and may soon have to be demolished. (It's as well that their architectural pedigree is too mediocre to mourn.)

One of the more ambitious schemes, stalled by the 2008 debacle, is the reclamation of a large area of inner-city brown-field formerly occupied by Victorian industries and criss-crossed by derelict canals and basins. Some housing clusters were completed, others are now being re-started, but the area has a pronounced WIP feel about it. I arrived there by tram the other day and alighted, along with one other passenger, at the hopefully-positioned station (called New Islington) which may, one day, have a cafe, shop and cycle-parking facilities but, for the time being, remains a desolate outpost alongside a big, blind block of flats on one side and un-reclaimed ground on the other.

"Do you know where the Albert Hotel is?" asked the other passenger. She was a middle-aged woman with a suitcase. "Am I in the right place? It's a bit desolate around here."
"It's back on the main road: about two hundred metres," I said, pointing to a new building on the edge of the derelict land.
"Oh dear," she said. "I don't fancy walking back here later this evening."

I tried to reassure her but she remained visibly uneasy as she set off. If all goes to plan this may be a pleasant, thriving residential area someday. Meanwhile, it's WIP City.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

First-World Food Problems

Within a few hours of returning from Nice I was back into the routines of home life. The only thing I missed was the food - or I should say the food opportunities: there were plenty of places offering pizza and cola for the gastronomically unadventurous but also lots of traditional local fare - like the restaurant we "discovered" in Vieux Nice where I lunched on poached chicken, a dish of black pasta shells and mussels drenched with intensely flavoured liquor and a bottle of Provençale rosé of such a pale hue and such a dry, nutty finish as would be impossible to come by outside of the region.

The flight home was short but fell, inconveniently, at lunch time (one of the characteristics of ageing is a tendency to favour fixed mealtimes) and although food is available on easyJet we were not keen to try it. Instead we went to the boulangerie around the corner from our hotel and bought a couple of baguettes filled with ham and cheese for an on-board picnic. And while the lady sitting next to us consumed her "meal deal" - a factory-made sandwich, a Twix and a cup of warm water containing a tea bag - with no outward sign of relish or enthusiasm, we feasted smugly on authentic French fare.

But now that we are back in the fresh-produce-desert that is central Manchester we must make the best of things. One consolation is the regular Sunday morning appearance of a fishmonger who sets up a stall on the street opposite our window. He's not your regular fishmonger offering neatly prepared fillets of cod and haddock: he says he's a fisherman, the owner of two trawlers, and has been bringing his catch here to Chinatown for 30 years. His display comprises crates of whole fish, squid, crabs, lobsters and crawly things I am not familiar with, none of which is labelled or priced. His customers are almost all Chinese and, from my observations, their approach to buying fish is more enthusiastic and more knowledgeable than ours. The early- comers, restaurateurs and older regulars, are followed later in the morning by entire families dressed in Sunday best on their way to or from dim-sum breakfasts. All of them, men, women and children, seem quite comfortable picking up and examining slimy, slippery fish and dangerous-looking live crustaceans.

Fascinated by this spectacle we resolved to join in: each Sunday since we moved in we have chosen a different fish for dinner. Along the way we bought some specialised implements - a de-scaler, fish-scissors, a filleting knife and - for lobsters - an extra large pot. Last Sunday it might have been the turn of blue-clawed crabs but, having awoken with hangovers as a result of birthday celebrations the previous night, we could only face the less threatening Dover sole.

But our relatively adventurous approach to what we eat is not quite matched by flexibility as to when we eat. When, at the suggestion of a friend, we went to the theatre last evening, there was anxiety about the timing of dinner. The performance, with its early start and four-hour duration, made no concessions to our feeding schedule and I was half inclined to call it off on the flimsy excuse that I had seen the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire and surely no actors could better Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh? But I swallowed a handful of peanuts, went grudgingly along and was duly gripped, from the moment Blanche arrived until she was finally led away by the psychiatrist and her sister's howl of anguish closed the drama.

Afterwards, while making do with a very late super of Stilton cheese and a couple of glasses of Barbera d'Alba, the theme of the play called to mind Samuel Johnson's epithet: "Kindness is in our power even when fondness is not". Later still, awoken from an unpleasant dream featuring men in white coats, I recalled some words of advice: “Never eat cheese at bedtime.” Now who said that?

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Nice is Nice

Paris Charles de Gaulle, Rome Leonardo da Vinci and New York JFK are examples of airports which, having adopted the names of national heroes may, wittingly or otherwise, bask in their eponymous reputations and benefit from whatever power those names have to evoke admiration, awe or curiosity.  Naming an airport presents a powerful marketing opportunity - one which London Heathrow has missed out on but which Liverpool John Lennon (above us only sky...) has not. When we flew from there last week I could not help but hum a few of the old tunes (though not without some sympathy for Sir Paul, who must have felt a little put out at being passed over).

The airport we were bound for, Nice Côte d' Azur, would have been hard pressed to choose just one name from a long list of well-known local heroes and has sensibly associated itself more generally with the glamour of its locale, Belle Epoque playground of Europe's aristocracy, latter- day retreat for celebrities, nouveaux riches and tax-dodgers and, more recently, accessible holiday resort for those of modest means. You don't need to be rich to marvel at the splendour of the grand hotels, appreciate the pretty coastline or crane your neck for a glimpse of an exotic villa tucked into a hillside: the local buses and trains provide some of the best views.

For me, a stay in a foreign city is inevitably an opportunity to make comparisons, favourable or otherwise, with my own and it's not long before I'm drawn to the windows of the estate agents. After first impressions comes the question - what's it like to live in this place? The centre of Nice is magnificent: the buildings are handsome, the streets are clean and there is generally a prosperous feel. As in so many European cities, there is a long-established resident population living in apartment blocks, not just in the suburbs but in the centre, and it is served by numerous boulangeries, patisseries, grocery shops and regular street-markets. Living, as I do, in the centre of Manchester I am bound to be envious. Our apartment blocks are newcomers, replacing what used to be commercial and industrial buildings. They are generally not suitable for family accommodation and there is no heritage of local bakers, butchers or grocers. The gastronomic needs of our recently established population are served by Sainsbury's Local, Little Waitrose and Tesco Express supermarkets all offering the same range of convenience foods - and a great many pizza-delivery services.

But a few days in a city is not long enough for me to make up my mind whether I would like to live there. It could be that, despite the availability of so much excellent food and wine in Nice, I might miss the daily struggle to find palatable provisions in Manchester (probably not); or I might become irritated by the hot, sunny weather (probably so); or I might just not fit in. Certainly the African immigrants sleeping rough around the central railway station were finding it difficult. Discreet observation of the locals and their habits gave me a few clues as to what it might be like, although my study was far from scientific. I did like the way that men (and they were mostly men) sat outside the cafes and drank coffee in the mornings with no apparent urgency to get off to work. I tried it myself, ordering coffee just as they did and adopting a dégagé pose, although I realised I would never make the top grade unless I took up smoking. And that was before I noticed that the hard-core were drinking red wine chasers. And then I came across a Carrefour Express down one of the side streets. Well, there goes the neighbourhood, I thought.

Glamorous bus stop on the Côte d' Azur.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Details Matter

I have been fretting about CD cases: they can be opened only by squeezing the top and bottom edges of the face simultaneously with one hand while pulling down the main body with the other. The double ones are even trickier. It's a relatively laborious process and there are no short-cuts. One or two manufacturers have simplified the task by opting instead for simple, folded cardboard sleeves - but even these are sometimes over-complicated by ambitious designers, even to the extent that they become more 'homage to origami' than user-friendly containers.

I make the point not only because, in the process of transferring a thousand CDs onto the new Hard Drive, I am frustrated by the fiddly packaging, but also because it illustrates how the design of new products is so often derivative rather than original. When CDs first came to the market they were presented as LPs, only smaller and shinier. The artwork remained the same scale so the text became too small to read. Their relatively high cost was justified by their novelty - and the unnecessary plastic cases. In fact, CDs did not need to be disc-shaped: I have seen square ones. But discs just happened to be the default of the recorded music industry. We are where we are now - with circular objects awkwardly packaged in rectangular boxes - because of a failure to grasp an opportunity for innovation.

Incremental product design is, in part, explained by incremental technological innovation. The first drivers of motor cars used their arms to indicate their intention to turn. Manufacturers soon introduced a mechanised hands-free flipper, then the flipper was modified to incorporate a light bulb, then a circuit breaker was introduced to make it flash and, finally, the flipper was abandoned in favour of fixed indicator lights. It's probably far too late for a radical re-design of the CD and its packaging - all the associated equipment would become redundant, sales have declined and digital downloading has, to a large extent, replaced the format. But perhaps lessons can be learned?

Technological innovation does not necessarily obliterate older formats: enthusiasts of Hi-Fi sound eschew MP3 files (sales of vinyl LPs are on the rise); intrepid hikers prefer to rely on paper maps rather than battery-powered GPS gizmos; serious businesses use hard-wired phone systems rather than risk poor signal coverage; and many readers still buy printed books. Novelty can bring benefits to users but it's important not to lose sight of the fundamentals - products need to be fit for purpose. I got a new phone to replace my old one which had developed a fault. Sure enough, the new model has faster software, bigger memory, a better camera and so on - all of which is good - and yet I don't much like it. The reason being it doesn't feel comfortable in the hand which, for a hand-held device, is a fundamental design flaw.

A new wine bar has just opened for business in our neighbourhood. There is no shortage locally but I welcome the extra competition since we tend to suffer from 'lowest common denominator' syndrome. Most places offer the cheaper, more commonplace New World SauvignonBlancs, Merlots and Shirazs, plus a token listing of European Riojas and Rhones. The operating principle here seems to be 'low prices + limited choice = maximised profits' which is disappointing for those whose expectations of a wine bar include diversification of type and quality.

But I am hopeful for the new place because it has installed an automated dispensing system which enables customers to taste exotic varieties without the need to a) order a whole bottle or b) risk mispronouncing the name. It's a small, incremental step for technology, but it might just lead to a giant leap in consumption of Thörle Saulheimer Spätburgunder Kalkstein and the like.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Travel Made Easy - Peasy

Budget airlines sell millions of tickets despite the miserable customer experience they inflict. They succeed because they provide cheap and frequent travel to places we want to go to - and even to places we didn't know we wanted to go to until they started landing there. Many a town with ambition to reinvent itself as a tourist destination has extended its runway to accommodate the airbuses.

With our journey to Nice imminent, I thought it best to check the travel documents - you can't be too careful when flying Squeezyjet in case an unwitting infringement of the rules makes you liable for a penalty payment exceeding the original cost of the flight. Sure enough, when it came to the cabin baggage, I found that the overall dimensions specified (including wheels and handles) were slightly less than those of the cases specially bought for our last flight. It was necessary to go out and buy even more bags to add to our collection and, at this time of year with the shops being well stocked with luggage, I anticipated no difficulty. But there was too much choice and when I eventually came across cabin cases labelled "approved by all airlines" I discovered they were actually five centimetres longer than Squeezyjet's specification. I begin to suspect that the airlines have shareholdings in luggage manufacturers.

I remember when suitcases didn't have wheels (porters were plentiful then) but now even the tiniest, lightest ones are fitted with them. It occurred to me that a better option might be a couple of rucksacks since they don't have protruding wheels and they can be expanded or contracted truly to suit all airlines. Rucksack design has come a long way since the canvas and buckled leather originals seen strapped on the backs of ruddy-cheeked youths hiking across the unspoilt English countryside of the 1950s. Now there are nifty designs for specific uses: going to school, commuting with a lap-top, cycling, running etc., so eventually I found one suitable for my purpose. Nevertheless, despite the ingenuity of the design, I wished nostalgically for a simple, old-fashioned duffel bag. It would have suited my purpose admirably.

I stashed the fancy new rucksacks inside the too-big cabin cases and dug out the tatty old hiking rucksacks: we were off to the Lake District for a walk. The forecast was for fair weather and it's been a while since we did anything strenuous so we set our sights on England's fourth highest peak, Skiddaw. The good thing about Skiddaw - on a clear day - is that no map-reading skill is required: the path is well-trodden and visible ahead for most of the way. The bad thing about Skiddaw - regardless of the weather - is that the descent is relentlessly steep and treacherous. Walking poles can alleviate the pressure on leg muscles but since we had left them at home we suffered the consequence - sore thighs for the following three days.

The day after summiting we made our way to the coast for a spot of R&R. We visited Whitehaven, once an important port where ships loaded the locally mined coal. Evidence of the wealth generated by that commercial enterprise is to be found by looking up at the older, grander buildings. But, with eyes at street level, it is hard to see beyond the impoverishment of the contemporary inhabitants and their failing infrastructure. Some money has been found to prettify the harbour and re-fit it as a marina, to fund a museum and to lay acres of fancy block paving but, on that sunny Sunday morning, the only establishments open were a local newsagent, the Costa coffee shop and the monster Wetherspoons pub. Most of the berths at the marina were vacant.

If they are serious about reinventing their town as a tourist destination, maybe they should start talking to Squeezyjet.

And here, for your amusement, is Fascinating Aida singing about budget airlines.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Layered Lives

Early in the week I watched a documentary film about David Hockney. Made in the early 1970s, much of it was set in a posh part of London (Notting Hill?) where he and his friends were based. It struck me that the buildings they inhabited, grand terraces with imposing facades, appeared shabby from years of neglect and that the cars parked along the kerbsides - Minis, E-type Jaguars, Hillman Imps, Jensens, early BMWs etc. - many of which now would be considered desirable 'classics', looked, for the most part, un-polished and un-loved. In fact the whole environment appeared worn-out and washed-up in contrast to the lively, colourful, creative characters it contained and, more startlingly, in contrast to Hockney's by then famous Californian pool paintings - all sparkling cleanliness, sun-soaked colour and sharp, modern architecture.

To some extent the apparent dinginess of 1970s London might be attributable to the lighting and photographic techniques employed by the director, or to the fading of the film-stock over time. Nevertheless, it matches my personal recollection of the down-at-heel ambience of the place at that time which, far from diminishing the pleasure of being there, actually added piquancy to the experience. It was the product of layers of history, the background vibe to everyday life and it formed the cultural foundation for artists of all kinds. When Hockney first went to California, leaving behind the cultural history of England, he quickly became established as 'the painter of Southern California', perhaps because he saw something the Californians themselves had come to take for granted: the fact that the place had been an empty stage for the new Americans who settled there, one on which they could establish a fresh, novel way of life.

Most of us, however, have to accept innovation being added to what we have inherited. We live in old buildings which have to be adapted to modern facilities such as heating, plumbing and Wi-Fi - which can be very tiresome. This week, fed up with my Wi-Fi signal frequently dropping out, I took advice and moved the router to a more central location - easier said than done, given the fixed position of the incoming phone line and the irregular shape of the apartment. In any case, my attempt was ill-planned and consequently costly: by moving the router without properly untangling the wires at the back I pulled the hard-drive storage box, sending it crashing to the floor. I wouldn't have been so distraught had my phone not developed a fault the same day. I subsequently went through the motions of investigating the feasibility of repairs before too easily succumbing to the temptation of buying new, improved versions of both gadgets. Now I have the problem that they are so new and improved that I'll have to spend days learning how to operate them.

Part-way through this process I took a break and travelled to the ancient market town of Oswestry in Shropshire and its nearby hill fort which, although established three thousand years ago, remains a prominent and remarkable feature of the landscape. The present-day town has grown directly from the fort - as is often the case on the borderlands between Wales and England - which makes it a unique and interesting place. But I was keen to walk around the hill fort and feel the fear of the Britons as they faced the Anglo Saxons (or vice versa). In that respect, however, I was a little disappointed: the fort is close to a housing estate; a road runs alongside it; there is a farmhouse built into one side of it; livestock graze on its crown, and dog-walkers parade around its parapets. No empty stage here: the full weight of layered civilisation is present. There was even a strong 3G signal.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Virtual Travelling

The prospect of taking a trip to a place I've never been before has always excited me - especially if that place is in a foreign country. I like to learn a little about the destination by reading and hearsay and then let my imagination go to work, elevating it - in the manner of a holiday brochure or a Royal Geographical magazine feature - into a place of mystery, wonder, beauty or whatever. Our forthcoming visit to the Cote d'Azure, however, has not enthused me in the usual way. Could it be that my appetite for adventure is waning? Or is going there simply not much of an adventure?

The answer may lie partly in familiarity, brought about by the easy abundance of images, information and opinion available in the media and on the net. Before you set foot in a place it is now possible to tour it virtually, canvas the experiences of a variety of strangers, check the weather forecast, and anticipate every meal. It's got to the point of questioning whether it's actually worth paying to go there at all - unless of course you have some specific reason. Be that as it may, our flight is booked and, after many hours spent on comparison websites, so is the hotel.

Meanwhile we have been exploring closer to home - a farmers market on Hampstead Heath - where I found I was having a discussion with myself. Should it be "farmers' market" or "farmers market"? The possessive apostrophe implies ownership by farmers, whereas the unqualified plural implies that farmers themselves are being offered for sale. But what about the bakery stalls? Surely "produce market" would describe the enterprise more accurately? Just as I was coming to the painfully logical conclusion that the apostrophe is shorthand for the absence of intermediary retailers, I spotted a pile of punnets full of gooseberries. "They're very early," I said nodding in their direction.
"They're not gooseberries. They're cucamelons," said my partner.
"A cross between cucumber and melon."
"What's the point of those?" I huffed and turned my attention to the more appealing artisan pies on the adjacent stall.

We bought the makings of a picnic and laboured uphill towards a place with a view, all the while taking turns at suggesting exotic destinations for our traditional escape from Christmas - which is not so easy: I remember once, in Marrakech, being urged by a stallholder to buy an inflatable Santa; and another time, at an eco-lodge in Dakhla oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, being surprised to see tinsel on the dining table. These may be the merest token trappings of the festival but they confounded our efforts at denial and mocked our attempt to establish a counter-culture.
But our thoughts were diverted by the overheard conversation of a trio of teenage girls accompanied by an adult woman. It's not often - never, actually - that I hear teenage girls vying to out-do each other in their knowledge of Homer (not Simpson) and so I listened with interest: "All the best stories are in The Odyssey," claimed one.
"But what about the wooden horse of Troy," said another?
"That's in The Iliad," came a reply.
"But was it true? I mean I know there was one in the film but was it true?"
"Check it on Epicadvisor," said her pal, brandishing a phone.

Eventually we decided to consider going to Beirut, agreeing that although it won't be a Christmas-free zone, it should at least have a "bit of an edge" to it. Back at home, having been tasked with researching hotels, I scanned endless identical websites for one that looked a bit ethnic or exotic but my attention wandered after an hour or so: instead I found myself Googling "cucamelon". Or should that be "cucumelon"?