Saturday, 27 December 2014

From a Tourist's Point of View

Experts tell us the Greek economy has collapsed by 30% but signs of hardship and distress have not been obvious to me as a tourist in central Athens. The place is awash with busy bars, cafes and restaurants; the pavements are crowded with shoppers; and the roads are full of traffic nose-to-tail. There are beggars, of course, but no more than I would encounter in central Manchester. Mind you I’ve only been here a week, during which time I have been seriously distracted by long, leisurely lunches, early evening ouzo and – oh, a lot of other cultural attractions.

A week is a long time in politics, however, and this particular week is crucial to the Greek parliament: it must agree on its choice of president or face the possibility of a snap election which may return a majority for the Syriza party which, with its determined anti-austerity agenda, would seriously screw up the European Union’s plans. (This could explain why I have begun to notice buses full of riot police on so many of the streets).

Despite my initial observations, Greece is undeniably bust. We tourists are doing our bit towards replenishing the country’s empty coffers, contributing 13.6 million Euros in the past ten months alone - a 10% year-on-year rise - but, despite our efforts, this is not enough to repay Greek debt to the EU and other lenders. And, as a means of direct aid, tipping restaurant staff generously goes only so far. More must be done and Syriza has a plan: write off the debts. Lenders are not too keen on this idea but, weighing the woes of lenders against the pauperisation of a society, it is hard to sympathise with them. To put it another way, if you owe the bank 10k and can’t pay, you have a problem: if you owe the bank 17 billion and can’t pay, the bank has a problem.

And all this goes on against the backdrop of Ancient Greece which is impossible to ignore. The remains of classical buildings are visible everywhere, historic artefacts fill a dozen museums and the myths and legends of the gods suffuse the language. Understandably, the troubles of modern Greece are not usually the main point of interest for tourists. Even when taking a break from formal sightseeing, lingering at pavement cafes, it is the Greeks themselves who are the object of our fascination. With their loose interpretation of indoor-smoking bans, lax approach to wearing seat belts and helmets and their disregard for tidy parking you have to admire their minor rebellions against the EU.

I’ve tried to make the most of my visit. I suppose I could have spent more time on the history but it’s surprising how quickly museum fatigue sets in and, with five millennia to go at, the best I can aim for is an overview. In this context, a week is not a long time.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Cathedrals of Culture

Manchester's London Road Fire Station, built in 1906 and now listed Grade II, has for the past 28 years been unoccupied and uncared-for. When the fire service vacated it back in 1986 it was bought by a hotel company which, despite promising otherwise, left it to rot. The Council has just launched a second attempt at compulsory purchase so as to give other developers a chance to secure its future. Assuming the CPO is successful, there remains the question of whether it should be converted into a hotel or a cultural asset. Not that the Council will necessarily have a say: the outcome will be determined by economics. My bet would be on it becoming a hotel.
The recently released Cathedrals of Culture, a collection of six documentary films about buildings including the Oslo Opera House and the Pompidou Centre, illustrates (among other things) how the various architects were free to design the buildings to fulfil specific functions, uncompromised by having to convert, say, a fire station into an arts centre. They appear to have succeeded admirably. But one of them, the 19th century National Library of Russia in Leningrad, now resembles a museum because technological advances have rendered much of its functionality redundant.
When Manchester central library re-opened this year after a three-year refit, some found it difficult to comprehend the changes. The main entrance now leads straight into an open coffee lounge-cum-display area full of interactive screens; to one side there are cosy booths for watching archive films; on the other side is an enclosed performance space; at the back there are banks of computers - and a few books - dedicated to local history. The main book collections are elsewhere in the building. In short, the interior has been modified to reflect the change in the way that a lot of information is now stored and accessed.
The librarians that I've encountered there seem pleased with their new working environment, although their expertise remains rooted in the past. I borrowed a couple of e-books (for the first time) and, having read them, wanted to 'return' them. I logged into my account but they were not listed there. At the library I asked why. The librarian looked frightened.
"I don't know much about e-books," he said "I'll ask Colin."
"Well," said Colin, "you don't 'return' them. They expire."
"Fine," I said "but why don't they appear on my account?"
"I don't know," said Colin. "Maybe my colleague can help."
Luckily, his colleague was familiar with this FAQ. "It's because the service is provided not by the library but by a third party," he explained. Three of us had learnt something serendipitously.
I went to get refreshment at the coffee bar. In front of me was a young woman, smartly dressed in a red suit and formal shoes, carrying under her arm a two-metre long aluminium step-ladder. She had ordered coffee and a muffin which she paid for and picked up without releasing her grip on the ladder. She strode purposefully away, to change a light bulb perhaps? Or erect scenery in the Performance Space? Maybe make a start on the Christmas decorations? Stick posters up in Kiddies' Korner? Fetch a book off a shelf even? Library life has certainly diversified.
There are some evenings when a glass of good claret is all I crave and that evening I had my eye on a bottle of Léoville Barton, generously presented to me some time ago. Before breaching it I checked on the vintage and was disappointed to read that, although it was rated excellent, it would not be at its best for another 28 years. I probably won't be around then, but I hope that London Road Fire Station will. (Applicants for the bottle must be under the age of 40.)

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Domestic Mystery Thriller

We were awoken at 03.20 on Monday by a loud noise. It wasn't an attempted break-in or an explosion: it was the sound of a cupboard door falling six feet to the kitchen floor. There had been no earthquake, it just fell off its fixings. As I picked it up to lean it against the wall I saw something else which had fallen to the floor, but noiselessly. It was a letter A, one centimetre high and made of rubber.  I put it on the counter in case it too might need re-fixing - although I couldn't think to what. Later that morning I asked my partner if she had lost a letter A. She looked at me sympathetically.

I had arranged to meet a friend for lunch so I left the cupboard door for later. As for the letter A, I consigned it to the same 'mysterious incident' category as the two coasters which had lately disappeared from their usual place on the sideboard. Arriving early at the restaurant I saw that most of the tables were laid out for big office parties and, knowing this would ruin any hope of an intimate lunch, I phoned my friend to divert him to a different part of town. (By now I was already planning to publish a map on Facebook for those who prefer to walk through town avoiding the hundreds of wooden Christmas Market cabins that have blocked all the pedestrian thoroughfares.)

We decided on a restaurant that had opened only the day before so they had no Christmas party bookings to disturb our tête-a-tête. On the other hand, being anxious to impress, they overdid the service with too-frequent intrusions. Still we managed - without trying - to lunch until late afternoon and in doing so took ownership of the day. I had time only for a brief nap before my next engagement, a Modernist Society illustrated talk on the saving of Preston Bus Station.

The tragedy of Preston's Bus Station is that it is a magnificent building in the wrong place. The Town Planning Dept. says it would make sense to demolish it; but who will trust their judgement when they put it there in the first place? It has just been reprieved by a Grade II Historical Buildings listing but this is not a guarantee that it will survive intact - or even at all. Most of the building is, in fact, a multi-story car-park and it would be a very useful facility to have at an airport - if only they could move it.

Two days later I found another letter A when I was installing a new printer in the study. (There isn't much wrong with the old one, it just needs the insides cleaning, but the time and trouble of dismantling it make no sense given the affordability of a replacement; although the new model requires different cartridges, so the stock in the cupboard is now redundant). I put the second letter A alongside the first one and looked around the room for objects that might have letters missing from them. I could see none.

That evening I attended a big band concert at the invitation of my friend who plays in the trombone section. The repertoire was not entirely to my taste, but the experience of seeing and hearing 35 musicians collaborating expertly is exhilarating whatever the programme. It was late when I got home, still humming White Christmas, but I kept an eye open for stray typographical characters as I prepared for bed. It was then I picked up my new slippers and saw that the soles had the maker's name stuck on in one-centimetre high rubber letters. The A's were missing.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

In Praise of Visionaries

At last the weather has turned cold and the cycle of our seasons is normalising: I can now wear the merino vest I bought in preparation. And it's good for the retail trade - the backbone of our economy - which will not be left with piles of redundant jumpers to dump later in the outlet malls. I just hope the bogeyman, climate change, is not playing tricks on us and this turns out to be a false start because I've also bought an enormous book - The English and their History by Robert Tombs, 891 pages, 1.7 kilograms - to see me through the long, chilly evenings and the SAD-prone days.

At first, daunted by its scale, I put the book aside for when I had a substantial chunk of free time but then, confronting my feeble procrastination, I took the plunge on Tuesday evening. From page one I was hooked. What I like about a good history book is that it enlightens the long view, the big picture and the broad context, usefully counterbalancing the insular short-termism that is the daily diet of our socio-political news-feed: especially in a week such as this when Osborne presented Cameron's Government budget. To say that they have an eye on re-election would be an understatement. To question their motives would be naive. They are, of course, defending the assets they acquired by conquest in 1066.

I 'm only up to page 71, but it is already clear that the English are, to some extent, still subservient to their Norman conquerors. (The name 'Cameron' is thought to be derived from a Norman baronial name - Cambernon. The name 'Osborne' is Viking in origin, but the Normans were Vikings who had settled in France before crossing the Channel for their England-grab). And if this all sounds like a conspiracy theory, just drop the word theory: there is strong evidence of the actuality (follow this link to get started!). Our Normans do not appear to be inclined to work for the benefit of all. For example the visionary concept of the European Union - "the first time in history that a bunch of grown-up nation states have had the wisdom and maturity to abandon some of their precious sovereignty for the greater good"* -  is of no use to them.

Talking of visionaries, Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey is once more on general release and, on seeing it again after 40 years, I was amazed by his prediction that Hilton Hotels would be providing the space-station accommodation (Virgin may actually beat them to it, but we get the point). He also knew that fashion would be crucial, even in space. The appointment of Hardy Amies as costume designer was inspired: those snazzy suits sported by the civilians in the Hilton conference facility are in vogue again. But the treachery of HAL the computer is the most significant prediction. The danger of conferring artificial intelligence on machines has cropped up more recently: I think Professor Stephen Hawking must have popped down to his local Odeon this week, bearing in mind his timely warning that we should be very afraid of AI.

But I am more optimistic. Certainly HAL was dangerous, but HAL was working in space with no one around to moderate its behaviour. Here on earth the Health & Safety at Work Inspectorate would monitor it for anti-human tendencies. If each nation had a HAL (an updated model) programmed to formulate government policies, we could eliminate those interminable, expensive and ineffectual humanoid international negotiations. The HALs could commune together using their algorithms to make rational decisions about asset ownership, wealth distribution, the elimination of poverty and armed conflict - and the reinstatement of the seasons. AI: what's to fear?