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.