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"?

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Home Is Where The Head Is

I've had cause to re-assess the phrase "quiet leafy suburb". Temporarily relocated to one such in London, I sat this morning on the patio, enjoying the summer warmth and the view of the lush and extensive garden, while listening to the sound of birdsong - disturbed only occasionally by over-flying jets on their way to and from Heathrow. But at nine o'clock the neighbours' workmen arrived: to the left they began to saw and hammer at wooden decking; to the right they started grinding through concrete paving blocks; and, somewhere behind the trees at the bottom of the garden, they kicked a lawn mower into action. Continuous maintenance and improvement, it seems, go with the territory.

Otherwise it may still be described as "quiet" in a non-literal sense: apart from the presence of tradesmen there is no evidence of any other activity. I suppose that is what the inhabitants value and want to preserve. A ten minute walk away is Fenton House - an elegant 17th century townhouse, lovingly preserved by the National Trust. Yesterday I bought some early apples from its orchard and ate one in its perfect garden while watching the bees rummage through the multi-coloured blooms. Who would want to change such a pleasing setting?

But I haven't been spending all my days sitting in gardens: I also took a train to the south coast to meet with my room-mate from another era, forty years ago. We hadn't seen each other in all that time and, although age had made itself apparent in his physical being, there was no change in his charming demeanour. He lives now in a "quiet leafy suburb" and during our reminiscences he told me that he is very happy there and that he prefers things not to change (even though he accepts the futility of this hope). Like most of us he lives in an inherited habitat, one made by previous generations to suit the ways in which they lived. We may tinker with the layout, modernise the facilities and update the decor, but otherwise we are constrained - physically and psychologically - by the buildings and infrastructure we inhabit. To what extent do they define the way we live?

I got some sort of an answer when I visited another National Trust house near Esher. Just before WW II the architect Patrick Gwynne persuaded his parents to let him demolish the Victorian family house and build a replacement, in the same grounds but further away from the increasingly busy Portsmouth Road. This was The Homewood, a modernist triumph - and I say triumph because there was and still is so much resistance to the notion of modernist architecture in our domestic dwellings. He did not compromise on the principle of designing a sleek “machine for living”, so much so that, during our guided tour of the house, some commented on the “eccentricity” of his rigour. The house was tailored to the life he wanted to lead and he was fortunate to be wealthy enough to indulge his convictions.

Patrick Gwynne lost his parents soon after the house was completed. He lived there, never marrying, with his sister whom he outlived. Without offspring he was able to refine the house further to suit his own purposes and ideals which otherwise might have become diluted. His architectural practice was successful but he was never commissioned to replicate the design of The Homewood. Perhaps his vision of the perfect house was too extreme - or even alien - for others to contemplate. It would have suited me.

But there was one thing he couldn't control: walking around the immaculate and thoughtfully landscaped gardens I noticed that that there was no escaping the intrusion of traffic noise from the Portsmouth Road.

The Homewood

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Let's Have a Big Round of Applause for...

I attended my friends' wedding last week and, although it was a lay ceremony, several elements of it resembled the traditional Christian format: for example, the venue - a splendidly elaborate Unitarian church. At the end, when they walked down the aisle newly-wed, we broke into a round of applause. It seemed the thing to do at the time but, on reflection, I'm not so sure it was. I think of applause as being a form of reward for the efforts of those who have earned it - people who win races, sing arias or otherwise excel by honing their skills in order to achieve remarkable things. Newly-weds don't really qualify on these criteria.

In the course of traditional weddings conducted in church, behaviour is prescribed according to the ceremonial format: everyone is told exactly what to do and guests are not encouraged to deviate from the script. There are no spontaneous gestures except for discreet smiles and nods towards the bride and groom as they pass up and down the aisle. Congratulations are given personally, outside the church. But with more relaxed formats evolving, there can be ambiguity as to how we, the guests, should express our congratulations. If there are no instructions we must ad-lib as best we can. It would be helpful if someone would compose a special song - a bit like Happy Birthday - which we can all sing together at the end of proceedings. I so want to do the right thing.

The next day we were on the London train for a scheduled stay in Hampstead. I had earlier read a newspaper article entitled Another French Bakery Opens in Hampstead which explained that this proliferation is due to the increasing number of French people who are choosing to live there. Since a disproportionate part of my time is spent grumbling about the poor quality of the bread available in shops and trying to track down the real stuff, i.e. made with good flour, additive-free and slow-risen, this constituted a good-news story for me as well as the émigrés. The French may have their weak points but baking is not among them.

We alighted at Hampstead tube station and made our way to the lift among a gaggle of young French people. Emerging on to the busy, sunlit street the first sound we heard was that of a busker playing the accordion. He was wringing out the kind of sentimental tunes which I always associate with the soundtracks to those old, black and white films set in Paris. He might have been wearing a beret and a neckerchief - or I might have imagined it. All around us was the exuberant sound of French being spoken, interspersed by occasional fragments of conversation in our native tongue.

 And there were the bakeries, three of them within a hundred yards (or perhaps I should use metres) of where we stood, their showy window displays flaunting their foreign origins and shaming their dowdy neighbours. I imagined the manager of the faux French Café Rouge nearby growing daily more anxious about his declining takings.

I feasted visually on the pastries, tarts and gateaux meticulously arranged in symmetrical, colour-coded arrays. I planned a delicious picnic hamper full of fare selected from the stacks of baguettes, rolls and croissants artfully slit and stuffed generously with cheese, charcuterie and salad.

And then there was the bread, piled into wicker baskets, stashed into wooden cubby holes or perched on the counter-tops: white sourdough, sourdough with 15% rye, wholemeal for toast, spelt with sunflower seeds, walnut and apricot boules, pain de compagne and olive-stuffed sticks. If I were a spontaneous person I might have burst into delighted applause.