Saturday, 22 February 2014

Confronting Father Time

My birthday fell during the past week and, as it happened, I spent the day alone: no fuss, no disruption to my routines and no public outing of my antiquity. There were cards, of course - a disturbingly high proportion of which featured bottles of red wine - and there were Facebook messages, but otherwise my head was comfortingly in the sand.

But there is no denying the passage of time. At my gym, for instance, although they have now disabled the gismo that used to play “Happy birthday to you…” when you swiped your membership card, there is another, inescapable reminder: the monitoring matrix on the cross-trainer which requires you to enter your age. However, I entered the wrong number out of habit and went on to record a PB (personal best) of 127 heartbeats per minute while watching Sean Connery wreak havoc in SPECTRE’s secret bunker, during which time the screen flashed a warning that my heart rate was too high - which was troubling since it thought I was younger than I was.

The inevitable process of ageing and its periodic reminders bring to mind a question posed by one of our revered female literary figures - “What are old men for?” I am working tirelessly to dislodge its implied assumption of uselessness but my recent activities seem only to aggregate the evidence for her case.

At the suggestion of a friend I joined a jazz appreciation society. At my first meeting I was unsure of what to expect but, realising that I was in a room full of men whose demographic profile exactly matched my own and that the retrospective nature of proceedings was set firmly in the past tense, I doubt whether there is much scope for any proselytising aimed at a younger audience. Days later, when that same friend and I met in town for a beer, I recognised another generational challenge: the first bar we went into was evidently a young peoples’ venue where the beer offering was completely alien to us. We politely excused ourselves and found a “traditional” pub nearby where we hoped to feel more at home. The beer was fine but the fact that we were the only customers in the place undermined our enjoyment by making us feel like the last survivors of our species.

Some days later, at the suggestion of another friend, I attended the Ultimate Rhythm & Blues concert which featured Spencer Davis and Maggie Bell plus The Zombies, The Animals and The Yardbirds. I went, I suppose, more from incredulity than conviction: surely these dinosaurs had died out long ago? And, sure enough, only remnants of the bands advertised were actually playing. The gaps in the original line-ups had been filled with talented young surrogates who had mastered all the notes, but it was the old-timers who were in charge of re-creating the magic of the sixties. Some of them, Maggie Bell especially, performed impressively but they were ultimately trading on nostalgia and, for me at least, the excitement of that first encounter could not be replicated. Not that nostalgia and harking back to the past should be dismissed as sentimental nonsense: as the years go by they are an inevitable consequence of having more stuff to hark back to.

Meanwhile, keeping abreast of current events, I noticed that Facebook just gave a couple of blokes $19 billion for some software called WhatsApp. I downloaded it to my phone so I could join in the fun but am struggling to find anyone in my address book, apart from my brother, who is similarly poised on the leading edge of hip communications media.

What are old men for? It’s a good question and I'm working on an answer - just in case I need one someday.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Money is the Root of all Evil

Argument is in the air: the succession of storms battering the British Isles resurrects debate over the whys and wherefores of climate change; the Sochi Winter Olympics bring sport into the domain of international politicking; and the impending referendum on Scottish independence prompts rational argument over the pros and cons sub-fused with the irrationality of nationalistic sentiment. I could go on but these examples will suffice to make the point that arguments often fail to get to the root cause of disagreement: profit.

It was on Saturday afternoon, while an old friend and I were watching England beat Scotland in the Six Nations Rugby Tournament, that these and other controversies bubbled to the surface of my consciousness. Our conversation had turned towards the friendly rivalries between rugby fans as compared with the uglier behaviour of football fans. Whatever the cause of such difference, in my friend’s eyes the sport of football is damned by association, which is a failure to accept that football has long since transcended the concept of sport to become a global entertainment industry. As such it is manipulated to maximise profit by playing to the emotional behaviour of its customers. The old-fashioned idea of sportsmanship – if it ever really existed - is lost in the process. Sport is business and whatever means can be justified to boost ticket sales will be employed. Rugby is no exception – it just has a different audience.

In any case we were glad to be watching on TV while a gale blew against the windows demanding we pay attention to the unusually extreme weather. With the balance of scientific evidence showing that climate change is exacerbated by the activities of human industry, denialists are now clearly exposed as those with vested interests – such as the CEOs of carbon-emitting industries – who are committed to maintaining the share values of their companies, come drought or flood.

 Meanwhile in Sochi, where snow had to be imported, the sporting events themselves seem simply to serve as background entertainment for a display of nationalistic power and prestige designed to impress the world. Putin seems determined to be seen as a generous party host - and lavish parties cost money. The expense of this one is so vast that he has “persuaded” several of Russia’s fabulously wealthy oligarchs to chip in and pay for some of the infrastructure projects - with the promise of future returns on their investments - even though any oligarch worth his roubles must know that lavish parties don’t make money.

Closer to home the arguments about Scottish independence are also boiling down to money. Anti-independence politicians are currently relying on their killer blow - the denial of Sterling to an independent Scotland - to swing the argument. And given that the E.U. has failed to make currency union work without correlated political union, their case is convincing. As yet there is a swell of populist nationalistic sentiment which just might be strong enough to prevail in favour of independence regardless of the stark reality of Scotland’s un-viable banks. But bearing in mind that the motivation behind the 1707 Union was a financial bail-out of Scotland by England (according to R. Burns, “We’re bought and sold for English gold”) Scots might be persuaded to vote with their wallets once more.

I am confident that cash is king and that Unionists will win the day – in which case it would only be polite to re-brand the Bank of England as the Bank of the United Kingdom so as not to rub English salt into Scottish wounds. In the unlikely event, however, of the Scots becoming our international, impoverished neighbours maybe we could let them win at rugby now and then – just for old times’ sake.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

On Waxing and Waning

I have been going to the same barber now for a year or so. He works alone in a first-floor room above a tattoo parlour and must surely be looking forward to the day he retires or wins the lottery. I notice while waiting my turn that he doesn't engage much in conversation with his clients, which may be because many of them are transient and/or foreigners - the salon being next to the university - so he shares little or no common cultural ground with them. Sometimes I feel a bit sorry for him and start a conversation - at least we are both British and of a certain age - but he has been isolated for so long that he has lost the art of it and his response is generally a monologue rather than an exchange.

But he is meticulous in his craft and thorough with each client, regardless of any queue that might be building. And he maintains his composure even when dealing with young men who quibble and fuss over stylistic details so minor as to be undetectable to anyone but themselves. I'd like to think he finds my affected nonchalance quite refreshing by contrast but, in truth, he is irritated by it. Each time he finishes cutting he asks me if I would like "a little wax dressing". I always decline - it’s a hangover from my 'Mr. Natural' hippie days - and he looks downcast and spurned.

But one of my more dashing friends has lately been dropping hints about the necessity for us older gentlemen to pay more attention to personal grooming, especially in respect of residual hair, so I took heed and, on my last visit, succumbed to the barber's blandishments to apply a little wax dressing. The result - though I say it myself - was a visible improvement to shape and sheen. Even my partner agreed and I subsequently persuaded myself that no real harm had been done in the putting aside of my principles - though I do worry about where it might stop: vanity-driven body-enhancement is a slippery slope to tattoos, fake tans, luminescent teeth and botox injections.

The diary for last week contained two social engagements and, with my newly found grooming obsession, I made the decision to go public with the hair-wax. But first I had to buy some (it had all washed out by then). I didn't think it would be difficult but I had not taken into account the level of ignorance I had attained during a lifetime's disdain of hair products. Even in the biggest chemist shop in town I could find nothing as innocuous as "a little wax dressing" among the shockingly expensive jars, pots and tubes of styling gel, strong-hold gel, wet-look gel, texturising cream, styling clay, styling fibre, styling glue, styling putty and styling pomade; although there was deeping wax, shape-defining wax and moulding wax. Overcome with indecision and insecurity I abandoned the project and went for a cappuccino and a read of the newspaper instead. Still, the looming social engagements re-focused my resolve and I went to another shop where I concentrated on labels featuring the word "wax". Still unsure which to choose, I was fortunate to find a solitary jar with a sticker saying "half price": my decision was made.

Come the occasion I opened the jar and was amazed - and amused - to find that someone had already dipped into it (I hadn't thought to check the seal). Perhaps it was a chap on his way to a date who had forgotten to groom up before leaving home: if so, I hope it worked for him. I tried it and waited all evening in vain for a compliment.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Targeting the Market

De-cluttering continues: the handsome piano I bought 18 years ago and which has been played just a few times - and only then by a visiting friend - can no longer justify its claim on floor-space, especially since I discovered via the internet that it may have significant value as a liquidated asset. I took a photo and sent it off to a dealer in excited anticipation and then I went down to the bin-room with a few of the smaller unloved items - and the household waste, which is evidently man's work.

On the street a car pulled up alongside me, its driver leaned out of the window and said "Scusa, parli Italiano?" Ever ready to help a stranger find his way I answered "Si, un po'," whereupon he reverted to English and told me a story about having been to a trade fair. Assuming he was lost I started to direct him to the airport. "No," he said "I have sat-nav. I just want to give you something." He pulled out a fancy presentation box containing a chunky wristwatch, sang its praises and explained that it was left over from the exhibition but that if he took it back to Italy he would have to pay duty on it: he would rather give it to me. Instinct told me not to trust his intentions so I declined the offer by explaining my de-cluttering crusade. He drove off shaking his head, but he is a poor salesman who does not see that the target market for blingy watches is probably not some grey-haired geezer emerging from a bin-room dressed in M&S jogging pants.

Later that day, while in town, I passed a man trying to sell something called "Bikishu". After a while I realised that he was most likely a recent immigrant who had joined the ranks of Big Issue magazine sellers strategically positioned outside the busy shops. I subsequently walked past six of them without witnessing a single sale, so it occurred to me that they also might benefit from my views on targeted sales techniques. Although there is undoubtedly plenty of foot-fall around their pitches, are they the right kind of feet? They should try their luck on the steps of the art gallery where feet may be fewer but belong to leisured, educated, liberal-minded arts patrons who might be more inclined - if only because of social conscience - to buy a magazine from a forlorn-looking refugee.

The business pages of the weekend papers revealed that even large, organised and established businesses must keep an eye on their targets. The new management at TGI Friday has recognised that its decline in customer numbers is due to most diners’ aversion to the rowdy party atmosphere it has encouraged over the years. They have now calmed things down and banned party balloons which, incidentally, is a good thing, since the earth is running out of irreplaceable helium stocks.

Another company which has run into a problem is Gillette whose sales are badly hit by the present fashion for beards and by the moustache-growing efforts of the Movember movement. There is talk of them diversifying into a chain of barber shops which offer a beard-trimming service, at least until the fashion recedes, whereupon they would flog it to a hedge fund. Meanwhile, if I were the owner of a long-established but languishing business in the moustachio wax sector, I would be offering myself up for sale in October.

But enough of big business: I put the papers to one side and went to check my email. The good news is that the piano dealer responded promptly to my enquiry; the bad news is that his offer is derisory. Apparently I must look elsewhere for my target market.