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 clich├ęs. 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.