Friday, 28 March 2014

Left Foot, Right Foot, Left Foot, Right Foot...

A few months ago my partner announced her intention to walk from Manchester to London via approximately 200 miles of canal towpath - a journey that would take about ten days.
"Nice idea," I said, thinking that I might look forward to a little 'me time'.
"And you can follow me in the campervan to provide sustenance and accommodation at the end of each day," she replied.
I foresaw a relentless evening routine of cooking, foot massaging and listening to the schemes she dreamt up during her miles of solitary tramping, although I would still have the days to myself - apart from a bit of driving, shopping and scouting for camp-sites.
The time has come and, as it's turned out, it coincides inconveniently with the possibility of our moving home. I say possibility because, although we have a willing buyer for our old flat and a willing vendor of our new flat, completing the deal is a convoluted transaction conducted through third parties i.e. two firms of estate agents and two firms of solicitors. It's a set-up guaranteed to maximise the opportunities for miscommunication and, unsurprisingly, that is exactly what is happening. With the Data Protection Act being quoted as the justification for not putting buyer and seller directly in touch with each other, the professionals have carte blanche to charge for a service imbued with a degree of old-fashioned, bureaucratic sloth such as hasn't been seen since the GPO was in charge of domestic telephone installations. Pinning down a completion date is as frustrating as trying to get through to someone on a help-line who is actually helpful.

There has also been a simultaneous timing complication because we have just traded our ancient campervan for one less decrepit but in need of some remedial work - fixing the pop-up roof, sealing the leaky gas pipes and so forth.
"I'll sort it out" I said and called a few places to book in for repairs.
"Sorry, sir, can't fit you in till after Easter," was the general response. Knowing that within days I would be on the road and held accountable for the quality of accommodation, I saw no option other than to buckle down and fix it myself. The gas leak was straightforward: it simply required the dismantling of the interior to get access to the leaking joint in order to tighten it. All I had to do then was make good the devastation. In all it took me eight hours. The rising roof was more problematic. It required a new gas-pressurised strut, bought on the internet and delivered next day (at huge expense) - but that turned out to be the easy part. Experienced mechanics probably have ways of compressing gas-struts which don't result in personal injury but I went through the learning process painfully - and in a mere six hours. The other, minor repairs were less demanding but nevertheless added up to a couple of days spent sourcing and fitting spare parts.

The great walk starts tomorrow, so today is one of tidying some outstanding desk-based admin. It has not started well: my computer has told me that it has stopped backing up my files to The Cloud. All else is under control: the van is fixed, the logistics are planned and the completion date for the move, although unresolved, is work-in-progress (we have established a programme of relentless harrying which refuses to accept the concept que sera, sera). I call The Cloud help-line and listen to the specialist talk to himself for an hour or so until my mobile rings. It's my partner.
"The van's broken down. The rescue man is here. He says it needs a new alternator."
I almost forgot: my partner's epic towpath trudge is not purely whimsical. She is determined to raise awareness (and funds) for the cause of Girls Out Loud.
You might like to help out with a little contribution via Just Giving
or by sending a text to 70070 and entering GOLW99 £(sum of your choice).

And you might like to follow her progress, share in her adventure and lend encouragement on Twitter @rachelmwl

Saturday, 22 March 2014


At the age of 87 the singer Tony Bennett is about to release a new album - hence the interview with him on Radio 4 this morning. He made an interesting point about the record industry when he said it concentrates too much on a youthful audience with the consequence that much of its output is trivial and has no "lasting quality". This may amount to no more than the familiar argument that things are not as good as they used to be, but it does raise the question of what makes an enduring song. Time, of course, is the ultimate arbiter but when we find ourselves singing songs first heard as children are we singing them because they have an inherent lasting quality or is it because we are nostalgic?

And if Tony is right about record companies concentrating on a youthful market then it would seem that they are playing a losing hand in more ways than one. By all accounts the young are averse to paying money they don't possess for physical product they don't need, so why are companies trying to sell to a shrinking market? Have they lost their commercial nous in the same way that the once-successful HMV chain of record shops did when it failed to adapt to change? HMV could and should have turned its increasingly desperate, frantic shops into calm, comfortable lounges where legions of older, traditional collectors of records and CDs would gladly have spent their ample leisure time - and their considerable disposable incomes - in blissful disdain of downloadable mp3 files.

Yet, despite the failings of the distribution end of the record industry (and my relative ignorance of its contemporary output), I am sure that songs are being recorded today which will prove future-proof: there have always been artists creating melodies and lyrics which capture our sensibilities and implant themselves in our consciousness, like undercover agents waiting for the moment to re-emerge. As for songs, so with films: I saw two this week which seemed to chime with the argument.

The first, a film in French by director Jacques Demy, was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg whose charm and visual appeal still shine undiminished despite the years that have passed since it was released in 1964. Demy used the unique qualities of the medium of film to great effect: he created a hybrid - neither musical nor opera - in which all the dialogue is sung by the stylish characters and all the settings are exquisitely coloured, some of them in almost impossibly vivid tones. The result is a fantastical production but one rooted in reality by plausible - and universal - themes of love, sex, money and war, all of which are guaranteed to engage audiences regardless of time and place. And my enthusiasm was hardly diminished by the appearance of the young Catherine Deneuve as the heroine.

The other film, the just-released The Grand Budapest Hotel by director Wes Anderson, likewise demonstrates how well-suited film is to fascinating us with illusions and captivating our senses via its repertoire of colour and composition. With his quick dialogue, sharp editing and farcical treatment, Anderson approaches the story-telling differently but no less engagingly than Demy. His mastery of the medium is convincing and he is confident not only in his idiosyncratic treatment of the story but also in its power - as well he might be - for it is about those favourite themes; love, sex, money and war.

According to my theory, all this should ensure that his film will still be entrancing 50 years from now. For a second opinion, though, I could ask Tony: he's been around long enough to make a call.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Vibraphones in the Market Economy

The only time I ever attended an auction was 35 years ago, yet still I recall the heart-racing combination of excitement and anxiety which immediately preceded my very first bid. It was brought on by the apparent urgency of the process and the perceived need to make a commitment under the pressure of a time-limit in the presence of professionals. Perhaps with the benefit of experience a naive novice such as I would have turned into a hardened hustler, but I'll never know for sure because now there is a more agreeable form of auction - eBay. Whereas the traditional form gives rise to the "bid in haste/repent at leisure" model, eBay allows time for those of a more tentative disposition to make their moves.
But in order to participate you must first embrace the internet - and there are those who don't, can't or won't. A radio programme this week featured some of them. One interviewee, a woman who won't, based her 'argument' not on rationale but on refusal. I imagine her as the type of person who thinks things were better when the Earth was flat. If she were to try it she might find, as I do, that eBay is a useful, entertaining and stimulating marketplace. Moreover, it benefits from not being physically crowded with sharp-elbowed shoppers. EBay is certainly playing its part in the process of clearing out unwanted items from our life as my partner and I prepare to move house. Prior to auctioning off my own treasured possessions, I have tentatively offered for sale some of her gear - a Mulberry cosmetics bag, a pair of crampons and two ice-axes. I know. Two ice axes! Still, it was gratifying to see that within minutes of their listing, all the items had attracted the attention of several 'watchers' and, the next day, even a couple of bidders.

Meanwhile, at the last meeting of the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society (whose members have recently welcomed me to their meetings on the grounds that I like jazz and used to live in Heaton Moor) our host for the evening demonstrated his willingness to embrace the internet. His chosen topic, Young Women and their Relationship to the Vibraphone, was presented using clips uploaded to You Tube which he cleverly projected onto the wall. Whilst I admired his mastery of both the topic and the technology, the evening's enjoyment was slightly marred by some intermittent buffering and the fact that the vibraphone doesn't do it for me.

When I got home I could not resist checking in to eBay to see how my sales were progressing.  There were some pesky questions to answer: How long is the axe? How much will it cost to post the crampons to Spain? But there were also bids on all four items. I slept smugly that night. The ice-axe auction climaxed the next day with a flurry of bids in the closing seconds. It was no surprise that both of the buyers live in Scotland and, although there is some confusion over who pays for the postage, there is no denying the satisfaction to be had from a successful sale. It gives an insight into the addictive quality of a career in sales.

Today, with my newly won confidence, I look forward to the closing stages of bidding on the remaining items. The Spaniard has withdrawn since finding out that postage would cost him more than a trip to Madrid to buy brand new top-of-the-range crampons. And the Mulberry bag - the item I would consider the least useful of the lot - is attracting by far the most money. While I wait for the countdown I search eBay for vibraphones. I’m just curious to know what value people put on them.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

"It's The same The Whole World Over..."

Over the phone I told my Australian sister that I planned to attend the ceremony at which our brother-in-law - a recently retired civil servant - was to be awarded the Imperial Service Medal. "It's for a lifetime of work," I explained.
"So he gets a medal for going to work?" she asked, her tone rising at the end of the sentence in that way which makes Australians sound incredulous even when they’re not.
"Err, yes," I said.
Recognition in the form of a gong is all very well, but an enhanced pension would be preferable - if you ask me. But in these times of miserly public spending, those few who remain in public service must make do with decorations and expressions of gratitude.

Our local Council has made determined efforts to divest itself of employees in order to save money. It has put its faith in a brand new, interactive website instead. Here is an example of how it works. Someone has abandoned a big wheelie bin on our street. It is overflowing with rubbish and attracting more each day. Since it is no longer possible to phone the Council I place a request via the website to have it removed. After a few days the anonymous response comes back that it is "not the Council's responsibility". I place another request, hopefully ticking some alternative boxes (there is no facility for free-text). A few days later the response comes back "The rubbish has been removed," even though it has not. I give them a couple of days for the bin men to catch up with the web-response team then I go online a third time to request its removal (each time I must start a new procedure because, of course, the system thinks the matter has been dealt with). A few days later the response comes back "The rubbish has been removed". It hasn't.

On passing the Town Hall, part of which has undergone an expensive and extensive three-year refurbishment programme, I decide to drop into the swish new customer service centre to see if I can make some progress. (I always thought customers were defined as those who buy goods. But language evolves, and nowadays a tax-payer is called a customer). I was directed to a line of phone booths from which I could contact the Environmental Health people without coming face-to-face with them. Could it be that they are in fear of physical assault from disgruntled customers/tax-payers? The lady whose misfortune it was to answer my call listened with practised patience to my tale and promised to put it through on a Q37 to a colleague. Having waited so long on hold - without music - I was past caring what she did.

Two days later I took a call from a mobile number; it was Carl calling from Environmental Health. He had been to our street, verified the presence of the bin and the small mountain of garbage that has accumulated around it and subsequently instructed contractors to come and remove it.
"They might come in two days - or it might be five," he said "if nothing happens you can call me on this number".
He didn't sound very confident. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he had just received his redundancy notice and that call was a last, desperate attempt at customer conciliation before he ceases to be a tax-payer and becomes an unemployed beneficiary of the diminishing public funds, sitting pointlessly at home and staring out of the window on to his rubbish-strewn, rat-infested street – without so much as a medal for consolation.

In a week when London was reported to be the wealthiest city in the world, never was it more obvious that the U.K. is a poor country run for the benefit of rich people.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Solitary Confinement

When my "other half" recently went away for ten days I became conscious of just how apt that particular epithet is: the fabric of life which is daily woven by two people living together soon peters out to a tatty fringe as one's warp runs out of weft. I have taken advantage of the opportunity temporarily to pursue my interests with unabated selfishness but am aware, even so, that the danger of unbridled self-indulgence is a tendency towards excess. As the man who built a replica of the Starship Enterprise's command deck in the dining room said, "I think it might have had an adverse effect on my second marriage."

On the very first day of my solo sojourn I had a reminder of the extent to which our domestic arrangements are a result of compromise agreements rigorously enforced in the interests of harmonious co-habitation. I had reason to visit a person living alone and was intrigued to see that dishes from the last evening meal were unwashed, that the place was littered with clothes, books and gadgets and that everything was laid out to suit the preferences of a single occupant - who was not even in a position to offer me a seat. I went home determined not to fall into such antisocial ways.

Time continued to pass quickly enough, the majority of one day being spent on the phone to the TomTom helpline. I tried in vain to convince three operatives in turn that my device had stopped functioning and that I wasn't a technophobe moron who just didn't know how to connect it to a USB port: and yes, I had tried turning it off and back on again - several times. My problem was eventually "elevated" to a specialist who sounded quite alarmed when I described one of the symptoms and, after consulting seven colleagues, all of whom were flummoxed, admitted that the fault must be with the device, not me.

It had been a very trying day so when I retired to bed I took the lazy, selfish option of listening to Book at Bedtime. It's such a good idea but, just as it puts children to sleep, so it does me, which means there is no dodging the necessity of reading the book in the end. Mind you, there are plenty of sleep-inducing programmes on TV as I discovered on assuming total control of the channels. The one that promised most interest but delivered most zzzzs was BBC 4's architectural programme Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness. And the unfettered freedom to watch any film I wanted led inevitably to my choosing a dud: Sid and Nancy, the story of the relationship between the famous Sex Pistol and his girlfriend. It was so dreary that I was left emotionally unmoved even by their predictably early deaths.

But it's not all solitary media-consumption and techno-chores: one evening I had friends around for dinner. This is normally a double act and so, aware that I had to take responsibility for front-of-house as well as kitchen, I planned a menu which could be prepared in advance and finished with a flourish before any alcohol-induced laxity set in. I settled on a main course of confit duck leg, green beans and Gratin de Pommes de Terre à la Dauphinoise, of which the latter was the trickiest since I had no prior knowledge of it. Frantic searches through stacks of neglected cookery books (I must replace them with an app) finally turned up a recipe by the authentically French-sounding Auguste Escoffier and the resulting dish was declared "a triumph" by at least one of my esteemed guests.

The question is this: if my other half failed to return, would I slide deeper into lazy, self-absorbed, squalid ways or would I learn more new recipes?