Friday, 25 December 2015

The Eight Euro Challenge

A friend of mine who is something of an epicure has just spent a week or so in Barcelona where, as anyone knows, there is excellent cuisine to be had, even at the lower end of the price range. Nevertheless, I was astonished - and a little envious - when he reported that he had enjoyed a three-course lunch - with wine - for a very reasonable €8.00 (£5.86 or $8.72 at today’s rates). I paid more than that for a sandwich at Manchester airport last week.

I was waiting for a flight to Athens, where my partner and I are now sitting out the “festive” period in an apartment in Piraeus, living like the locals: except that we can’t speak Greek and have only the faintest idea of how the locals conduct their lives. News reports back home give the impression that they are mostly unemployed and up to their ears in debt but I’m sure the picture is more complex than that. From our terrace we can see plainly the constant procession of ships bearing cargo and passengers to and from the port, a promising if anecdotal indicator of rude commercial health. In any case there are plenty of restaurants, ouzeries and tavernas open for business; plenty of scope for an eight euro lunch, I would have thought.

We dipped our toes in the water at one such, jammed between the fishmongers lining a back street near the port: it was inexpensive but not close to the benchmark. In one sense, however, we did get more than we bargained for. A man, perhaps in his thirties, and a boy, possibly his four-year-old son, came and took a table nearby. The waitress brought them drinks and snacks, the man lit a cigarette and the boy, already bored, wandered about, practising moves with his plastic sword. Seeing the boy’s need for distraction, the man pulled two small crabs from one of his bags of shopping, placed them on an empty chair and encouraged the boy to beat them with his sword until they stopped moving which, mercifully, they soon did. Meanwhile the waitress reappeared and watched admiringly for a minute or two. At last the man put the leaking crabs back into the bag and wiped the chair down with a napkin.

There are questions to be asked here: whether the man should be encouraging the boy to be violent; whether the spectacle was “tasteless” given the proximity of diners; whether there is such a thing as cruelty to crustaceans and, if so, whether there is pertinent legislation; and whether I should have raised an objection on any or all of these grounds. On this last I admit to timidity on account of being a cultural outsider: but if I had not been?

If this incident is seen as representative of the cultural differences ingrained in the various communities that make up the EU, then it is easy to see that pan-European legislation will inevitably be controversial. The wearing of seat belts and crash helmets, for example, is mandatory throughout the EU but Greeks appear to have an opt-out clause on this, just as they do on the paying of taxes. And as for smoking! Part of our “live like the locals” project involves shopping for groceries, to which end we ventured into a small butcher’s shop nearby not noticing, until it was too late, that the old man in charge was smoking a cigarette underneath the turkeys hung above him. Perhaps more up-to-date habits of health and safety will prevail once the older generation dies off but, until then, if you want to experience cultural difference, then you take the rough with the smooth.

I’m still working on “the challenge”, by the way, but have managed to set another meanwhile: a three-course lunch in a Michelin starred restaurant for €30 (wine not included). You have to put up with smokers at the next table, mind you.

Fishermens' chapel, Piraeus

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Less is More?

On a visit to the Manchester Art Gallery this week I came across a small temporary exhibition called The Absence of Presence. It’s based on the tortuous premise that the works displayed have one thing in common – the requirement on the part of the viewer for a “heightened level of looking” in order to discover in them traces of that which is absent. The idea is inspired by a Callum Innes canvas Exposed Painting: Green Lake in which the artist has deliberately scraped off the top layer of paint, leaving only a trace of what he had previously laid. I left more puzzled than enlightened.

In another space there is a more straightforward exhibition, House Proud, which is easier to understand in that it examines the influence various artists have had on the design and decoration of some house-wares which are in the Gallery’s collections. Some of the artists had been commissioned by manufacturers to work within constraint of reasonable production costs, while others had a free hand. The exhibits therefore comprise a nice mix of the practical and the impractical, the affordable and the collectible, the mass-produced and the hand-crafted. Inevitably I coveted some of the items - although I need none of them. But I was reminded that I do need a new teapot. (The one I use is chipped and the basket inside it which holds the tea-leaves is no longer as porous as it was, having become coated with a thick layer of tannin). I later went in search of one but, despite its renown as a regional retail hub, this city has little to offer in the way of teapots for the discerning. I eventually settled for one that met at least some of my requirements, although it was obvious that no artist had been involved in the design process.

It wasn’t the only disappointment of the week. I went to see Spielberg’s latest film Bridge of Spies, a story of prisoner-exchange between the USA and the USSR in 1964. Slick and entertaining though it is, the ending - a superfluous addendum of unadulterated schmaltz - lets it down. Nevertheless the story reminds me essentially of just how tense relations were during the cold war and, with the passage of time, how relatively relaxed they have become. On Tuesday the news was all about three astronauts – a Russian, an American and a Brit – being transported from Kazakhstan to the International Space Station in a 1960’s era Soviet rocket. Who would have thought it possible? Even someone with Spielberg’s imagination could not have foreseen such co-operation.

The next morning at breakfast I used the ugly new teapot for the first time. The occasion was tinged with anxiety because, it being slightly bigger than the old one, I had to gauge the correct proportions of tea and water. As it turned out my angst was in vain: it is impossible to get right as the basket is actually too small for the volume of the pot. It’s just as well, I thought, that I haven’t yet discarded the old teapot. This new one is definitely earmarked for the charity shop.

So, over a disappointingly weak cup of tea, I sought to console myself with the previous day’s unfinished “quick crossword”, starting with the correction of several brave but misguided entries made by my dyslexic partner. I got stuck for a while on one of those tricky clues that requires a phrase: That’s all there is to it (4,4,5). As I pondered, it occurred to me that perhaps this is what that curator was getting at: the absence of presence is precisely the relationship between the empty spaces and the clues. There, I thought, I have it: Bob’s your uncle!

Saturday, 12 December 2015

A Life Spent Grouting

In the bathroom there’s a small patch of tiling where the grout has been washed out of the joints by the cascade of water from the shower above. I've been meaning to fix it for the last 18 months - it’s not a difficult job - but there are other things to do and, life being short, I try to prioritise what I consider most important. Early this week, however, I took advantage of a brief hiatus between the completion of one large project and the start of another to get the job done, using the little-known technique of speed-grouting. (Then, finding myself on a bit of a roll, I framed and hung the four pictures that had been stacked for several weeks against the living-room wall.)

There is satisfaction to be had in such small, practical achievements but I am mindful that they can easily become distractions from other, more enduring ways to happiness: the time and energy spent on them should not be at the expense of more meaningful occupations – like the tending of friendships, for example. When relations with a very old friend of mine turned sour lately, the resulting feelings of misery and recrimination festered in both of us until we brought ourselves to confront the issue. In the event we readily resolved the contretemps and left each other smiling – as normal. It took very little time and effort to fix – where there’s a will there’s a way - and it was time well spent. No papering over the cracks, mind you: more like a re-grouting job, repairing the erosion.

Friends are hard to come by, especially in a life which gets shorter each day, and it is therefore worth investing one’s time in nurturing any networks which might bear friend-fruit. I had lunch with one such recently-acquired friend this week, over which we discussed ways of remaining meaningfully engaged in society during the years of post-business busyness. It’s all very well to take up a dead-end hobby, we agreed, but “killing time murders opportunity” so we need to seek out worthwhile projects. We had a “dry” lunch but when it was over one of us (we are interchangeable in this respect) said, “Fancy a drink?” Shortly afterwards we were the sole occupants of a wine bar where, over a pleasantly nutty Vermentino (and to a soundtrack of Bing Crosby-era Christmas songs) we savoured the irony of having an afternoon to talk about projects while everyone else in town was apparently busy executing them.

Still I'm concerned that time is short. I have a pile of books that must be read and it never seems to diminish. The weekend reviews just now make matters worse by featuring annual lists of recommendations so long that one despairs of the prospect of getting through even a fraction of them. I am currently stuck with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which is actually a very long novel – 750 pages – although, having bought it as a download, I had no idea of its size at the time. Now, two-thirds of the way through and keen to be moving on, I have sussed that a good many of the pages can be attributed to the author’s tendency to elaborate on seemingly irrelevant details. I have therefore begun to employ a technique for reading which was taught me many years ago. It consists in scanning the lines on the page diagonally back and forth, rapidly and without pausing. Thus you get the general gist of what’s happening, without having to linger over every syllable. It’s called speed-reading. But employ it judiciously: I see today that my grouting is already being washed away.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

All Together Now...

.Each episode of Mad Men concludes with the credits rolling over a soundtrack of a well-chosen popular song and this week, when I watched the final, final episode (I think), that song was I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony - yes, the Coca Cola advert - which I've always dismissed as the epitome of naff. But the choice was certainly apposite in the context of the story and, as it happens, the wider context of world affairs, especially given the ongoing but feeble attempts to put an end to the complex and seemingly intractable wars in the Middle East.

Ah but music, you may say, is powerless to influence the outcome of world events. And yet...there may be some hope. On Sunday evening I was at a gig for the launch of a record called Songs for Mavis by the a cappella group, The Voice Collective. The singing (which was in perfect harmony) was terrific but what also impressed me was the fact that they had no leader: all the arrangements had been created by committee i.e. the thirteen singers acting collectively. This, as they acknowledged in their introduction, is not easy; but nor is it impossible - as their performance attested. All it requires, apparently, is the will to harness individual talents to the yoke of collective endeavour. Simple.

Try telling that to our parliamentary representatives who spent most of this week arguing and squabbling over whether to bomb targets in Syria. They were positioning themselves for the culmination of the drama - a ten-hour debate in the House of Commons to decide the issue. It's a tricky one made trickier by the fact that they chose, in my view, to debate the wrong motion. Given that there is widespread acknowledgement - even in military circles - that politics, not war, is the only effective way to address the mess that is the Middle East, where was the ten-hour debate on the motion that we should do more to promote a diplomatic initiative? It's as if, having discussed the fundamentals superficially (if at all), they then went on to discuss the superficialities fundamentally.

And so the outcome was a majority in favour of sending the RAF's small, but apparently perfectly formed, assets to join in the carnage. It looks suspiciously like bombing to impress - not the enemy, who is very good at dodging bombs - but our allies. And while those in favour of bombing might also acknowledge the need for collateral diplomacy, we wait to see whether the approach of "softening up the enemy" beforehand will be effective. (Who was it said that when it comes to this type of diplomacy you should "speak softly but carry a big stick"?)

Little did the Voice Collective know that their performance would provoke me to anything more than an appreciation of their musicality (especially their rendition of Joni Mitchell's Carey) but their model should be adopted more widely. There may be, as commentators note, the beginnings of collective action to bring stability to Syria in the form of exploratory talks in that nice little hotel in Vienna but, apparently, progress is slow. Perhaps what they need is a deadline - like a forthcoming gig for which they must prepare. And it might be inspirational to have the Voice Collective flown in each morning to sing I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony...before the sessions begin (translations could be visually projected). And at the top of the agenda could be printed a permanent motto: "When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will be at peace". Jimi Hendrix, 1942 - 1970. He was only a musician and he didn't live long, but he sure knew stuff.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Group Activities

I’ve been watching a TV series called Fargo without realising – until episode four, last Monday – that the plot is different from the Fargo series I watched last year; and that the plot of that series is different from the one on which both series are based – the Coen brothers’ film, released in 1996. I should add that I've been watching alone and it wasn’t until I expressed my perplexity to someone else that I was advised to “look it up” on the internet. There I discovered that all the Fargos are indeed different, although they share a common theme - and the Coen brothers’ involvement. But since each and every episode begins with the declaration “This is a true story” I feel justified in claiming to have been misled – my trusting, gullible nature notwithstanding.

It goes to show that knowledge of context is useful when it comes to understanding what’s going on in cultural entertainment and that group participation has an advantage over solitary enjoyment; and explains, in part, why I am an enthusiastic member of the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society, a group which takes its subject matter seriously while managing to take itself less so. (Perhaps we all recognise the ridiculous irony in a dozen or so white, middle-class men in their 60s and 70s congregating in the comfortable living rooms of a leafy suburb of a northern English city to celebrate the music of poor, black, people from the desperate, dissolute centre of a southern American city).

Our meetings have a set format: members volunteer, by loose rota, to host a themed presentation of their choosing. They talk on their subject and play recordings to illustrate it. Strong drink is taken and there is an interval for a buffet (pork pies are always the centrepiece). Mastery of modern technology – MP3 files, Youtube clips etc. – can be patchy, but no one complains: our generation is short of experts. In this week’s session our host, well-known for his “roots” preference and having declared that modern jazz had dominated the sessions too much of late, chose to illuminate an era with which I am unfamiliar – New Orleans at the close of the 19th century. Now I’m no fan of this period but it is clear from the earliest recorded examples that powerful, formative music was made there and then. Louis Armstrong, for example, who may be remembered mainly for his showmanship, distinctive voice and the popular hits of his later years, made a spectacular and distinctive early contribution.

Since those days jazz has evolved, developed, migrated, mutated and insinuated itself into our consciousness in ways we may not even be aware of. Without the collective knowledge and experience of HMJAS I would be hard-pressed to find a way through all the myriad paths of jazz: which is why when someone says to me I don’t like jazz, what I actually hear is “I haven’t listened to much of it”. There is no doubting that the very word “jazz” is not up to the task of defining all the various strands and if it puts you in mind of New Orleans circa 1905, marching bands, striped waistcoats and bowler hats, remember that’s only the beginning of the story.

This year I’m organising the society’s Christmas lunch. It will be an all-male affair – again. I’m not sure why we don’t have any women members - I have at least one female friend who is an aficionado - but the combination of pork pies and older gentlemen might be a deterring factor. Hopes rose when a member's wife once attended a meeting, but it transpired that her book club had been cancelled just minutes beforehand. Perhaps we should set up an outreach programme.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Sowing and Reaping

I count as friends the two ex-colleagues who took over the company I founded: even now, years after my retreat from the hurly-burly of business, despite their busy lives, they generously give up an evening once-in-a-while to take me out to dinner. For their part it may be a ritual acknowledgement of past loyalties but, no matter: we - or, at least, I - enjoy the fruits of their continuing toil.
Our latest rendezvous was in a newly developed part of the city where planners have sought to ensure that, when the office-towers empty, life remains in the streets below: a multitude of bar-cum-restaurant operations line the piazzas, luring punters with showy interiors, exotic themes and dodgy cocktails. But at five p.m. on that dark, blustery, November Tuesday they were all completely empty and I was anxious for their prospects of covering their overheads. Arriving early (yes, there was a joke later about my being a "man of leisure") I discovered that the place we had nominated was about to host a private party, so I investigated some of the alternatives nearby, starting with the most recently established, a Lebanese mini-chain I had previously seen in London.

As I studied the menu, displayed on a stand outside the entrance, a very young member of staff came out to offer me assistance. Because of her olive complexion and black, curly hair I took her for Lebanese, but when she smiled and said "Hiya!" there was no mistaking her working-class Salfordian heritage. She went on - with the enthusiasm of a recent convert - to proclaim the excellence of the establishment. "Thanks, but I was just looking to see if you serve beer," I said (wary as I am of dodgy cocktails).
"We do," she said, "but I don't think they're all on there. I'll go and get the big menu from inside." Her willingness to please was charming - although it carried the faint whiff of a recently-completed training module.
"It's okay," I said. "I'll take your word for it."
"You coming in then?"
I looked in at the rows of vacant bar-stools and, beyond that, the 100 or so empty covers in the dining area. "Maybe later, if I can persuade my friends."
"Oh, they'll love it 'ere," she said. We parted on jovial terms.
In the event my friends were easily persuaded and fifteen minutes later our party - two male, one female -comprised the total number of customers in the Lebanese joint and commanded the complete attention of the waitress. We men ordered Lebanese bottled beer - just for the novelty of it, while our female member wanted vodka. "Which ones do you have?" she asked the waitress.
"I'm not sure", she said and hurried off to find out.
"I think she's new to the job," I said and we sat back to wait.

When she returned with the bad news that our friend's preferred brand was not on offer there followed some good-natured banter which somehow led to our waitress telling us the story of how she came to be there.
"You know when you go to the Job Centre, right? And they tell ya you 'ave to go where they send ya? Well, they sent me 'ere and told me to wear this outfit, right. So, anyway they asked me if I wanted to apply for a job and I said yes and they did an interview and they took me on."
She looked so pleased with the outcome that we were moved to be happy for her. I thought back to my first job - a kitchen porter in a cafĂ© - and hoped that simple employment would not be the end of her ambition; that one day she would be waited-upon in smart restaurants.

But by now she had practically joined our table and was singing her employer’s praises. My empathy quickly waned and I interrupted her flow. “So,” I said, “these drinks…”

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Cyber Story

If you have a good internet connection it’s possible that you will need to step outside your home only on rare occasions - to visit A&E, for example. Indeed it could be argued that, given the likelihood of catching a deadly infection in hospital, it would be better not to bother even with that. Everything can be delivered to your home - although it doesn’t always happen without glitches, as I was reminded when I unpacked my grocery order and found it was short of a bag of frozen broad beans. But wouldn’t you miss the company of other human beings? Well, these too can be brought to your home - by way of invitation to dinner, drinks, tea, a game of poker, casual sex or whatever. The flaws in this arrangement, however, are firstly that guests may outstay their welcome and, secondly, that there will be no chance-encounters with faces either new or old.
With this in mind I ventured to the upstairs room of a local pub last week where a story-telling event provided an opportunity for a couple of hours of good old-fashioned live, interactive entertainment and, although I didn’t make any new friends, I did bump into a couple of old ones. The story tellers - three amateur and one professional - were admirable in so far as they had the skill to tell a tale and a belief in the need to maintain the oral tradition. But in doing so they recall a time when illiteracy was the norm and audiences had no way to distinguish word-of-mouth myths from historical facts. All the stories told were in this mould and, after a while, their charm wore off: what I began to hear was the age-old technique of controlling populations by keeping them ignorant.
A few days later I saw a film called Tehran Taxi by the Iranian director G Panahi, in which he drives a taxi around the city, all the while filming his interactions with his fares. It’s a brave film because, although Tehran looks like a normal city, its inhabitants live under a very controlling regime and, in order to avoid conflict with the authorities, their everyday activities are suffused with layers of covert behaviour and their conversations are guarded and coded. Their version of home delivery is a man with a bag full of Western DVDs quietly doing his rounds - like a genteel drug dealer - with the aid of a complicit taxi driver.
You might be thankful not to be living in a place such as Tehran; but consider the normal-looking cities in the UK, where people go about their legitimate activities apparently untroubled by a regime intent on imposing its religious-social code on all inhabitants. We face another kind of intrusion - that of the CCTV camera. Someone has calculated that UK residents have more cameras per head trained on us than anywhere else in the world. We are assured that it’s for our own good, to act as a deterrent for criminals and, as if to prove the point, there is a day-time TV programme which shows footage used in successful convictions.
This approach to criminality arguably has a deterrent effect but it tackles the symptoms not the causes. The two most effective ways to prevent crime are: to develop a caring social structure that nurtures individuals; and not to criminalise harmless activities. There will, of course, always be crime based on greed rather than need. As Roosevelt said, “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”
But official UK statistics claim to show that crime is falling: evidence of the effectiveness of surveillance as a deterrent? Er, no. Cybercrime is on the rise: evidence of criminals realising the benefits of staying indoors and ordering in, just like the rest of us.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Credit Where It's Due

How time flies in the world of technology! My partner has just ditched the "new" laptop she bought 18 months ago because, despite its many attributes, it had two maddening characteristics: it was unable to keep up with the speed of her neurotransmissions and it was reluctant to connect with unfamiliar Wi-Fi systems - as if it was shy or suspicious of them. If there are two things we all expect from computers these days they are speed and Wi-Fi connectivity so it has been discarded, its cost written off, and replaced by a model which is not only faster but also bolder (it needs to be, since it has no socket for cable connection to a router).

It is also quite expensive, so before buying it we reviewed our finances - mindful, as always, of Mr Micawber's advice to heed the importance of cash-flow and its starkly alternative bottom line results, "happiness" or "misery". This I was able to do on my own laptop because - while I will always be grateful to Micawber for explaining so succinctly the advisability of regulating expenditure according to income - I do have Microsoft to thank for providing a tool with which to do the maths: the Excel spreadsheet. Left to my own devices the calculations would most certainly be questionable. Happily, as it turned out, the insertion of the proposed purchase into the "November" cell did not turn the ink red further along the row. How I love computers - sometimes.

But people's expenditure isn't always controlled according to Micawber's rational principle. All too often a cashflow will result in "misery" because of unaffordable purchases. Perhaps in such cases the possibility of a lottery win might have been factored hopefully into the equation? When I was re-organising my favourite websites into folders yesterday (it was raining) I noted with some alarm that I had filed the National Lottery website in the 'Finance' folder, along with HSBC, Halifax, Lloyds, HMRC etc. Optimistic? I think so: to date the National Lottery has had only a negative impact on our finances.

It has been observed that "Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't need, to impress people they don't like". It's true that we are easily persuaded to spend more than is necessary - whether we can afford it or not. The power of branding proves the point. Apple, for example, is the only manufacturer which makes a good profit on handsets. It does this by being able to convince people to pay much more than they would for other brands and, while there are those who buy an iPhone because they prefer the technology, there are others who simply want to be seen to be able to afford it. Some can afford it: for the rest there is credit - a concept which tests the notion of affordability. A cautionary note here - and I'm sure Micawber would have agreed: credit is better employed in the acquisition of appreciating assets than it is in the purchase of depreciating hardware.

But this inclination to buy stuff on credit may be just a passing phase. Futurologists are already predicting the end of personal ownership of cars - once they become driverless and universally available on-demand per journey there will be no need for individuals to buy them and keep them parked up for most of their useful life. It could be the beginning of the end of superfluous consumption and the dawning of a new age of sustainable economics. For years now it has been possible to rent mobile phones: I hope the same will apply soon to laptops, as I've accumulated quite a few "old" ones already.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Messy Lives

This week I visited Hardwick Hall, a 16th century stately home that was built to impress and has a fascinating history. It was commissioned by Bess of Hardwick who worked her way up from relative poverty - via four marriages - to become the second wealthiest woman in the kingdom. She specified an unusual layout: there is no grand entrance hall at ground level and the lavish state rooms are situated on the upper floors. Although it was occupied by her descendants until 1959, the building escaped re-modelling because it was used as a mere secondary home. The last, solitary occupant made herself cosy in just a few of the smaller rooms, which she equipped with modern appliances and furniture. The rest she left alone. She had done what many of us do - she had adapted the space to the way she actually lived.
Hardwick Hall
Bess’ other house, Chatsworth, which was preferred by her descendants, is in a later but no less magnificent style. In talking about it with a friend we agreed that, although the architecture and setting of the house are exquisite, the interiors - lavish and opulent though they are - do not impress in the same way: they are messy. The rooms are decorated in a variety of fashions and contain a seemingly infinite and disparate collection of furniture, ornaments and knick-knacks. Consequently they do not cohere stylistically. While the vision for the building and its setting was clearly realised according to strict professional disciplines, the interior reflects the fact that daily lives are not lived according to immutable patterns. Only a vigilant and fastidious stylist is able to resist the gradual accumulation of mismatched items and it takes a rigid disciplinarian to throw out granny’s sideboard because it doesn't meet the current design aesthetic.
Is it possible to design interiors that suit the way people live? I read that, in California, a billionaire is having a house built to his specifications, one of which is a dressing room for his wife which incorporates a raised catwalk so that she can try on her outfits in front of an invited audience. Extravagant, but I suppose it could double up as a nifty skateboard track for their kids. Most of us, however, don’t have bespoke residences built for us; we make do with what has been built speculatively, in which case the organisation of the interiors involves a little compromise. And stylistic integrity, if it is considered at all, takes second place.

In mid 1940s America there was a serious attempt to re-think the way that houses for the masses were designed and built, and husband and wife designers Charles and Ray Eames took up the challenge enthusiastically. Their idea was to make a flexible living space that could meet the requirements of the ways in which people wanted - or were obliged - to live. They were driven by philosophical ideals that valued knowledge, discovery, technology and science for the common good, and saw no separation between life and work. It was a bold idea, but it didn't catch on; not everyone is a talented designer who can work from a home studio and, maybe, people prefer to separate their home life from their work - or perhaps they have no choice but to do so. In any case America subsequently filled up with “tract” houses built to patterns which allowed for none of the individuality which the Eames’ envisaged.
The Eames’ were very successful in other fields, however, especially furniture. Some of their pioneering chair designs are still being manufactured and can be found all around the world. I even spotted some in the cafeteria at Hardwick Hall. 

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Sustainable Economy: A Minority Interest?

The news last week that some residents of a North London suburb are urging neighbours to refrain from using noisy gardening machinery prompted this thought: garden maintenance in such suburbs, as I have observed myself, is often contracted to professionals who, being paid by the hour, depend on mechanisation for their profit; residents pressing for a return to hand-operated equipment are on a hiding to nothing.

There is a tragi-comic ring to the story:  affluent householders finding something to complain about have been the staple of many a TV sitcom; but beneath the laughter lies a contradiction between the desire for economic growth and the attenuation of sound-pollution, a conflict between our interests as consumers and as producers. It’s a small story, writ large elsewhere.

The President of China was welcomed to the UK this week with all the ceremony and puffed-up pomp that the Government could muster. The ostentatious and highly visible cost of this colourful junket sits uneasily with the Government’s determination to reduce the welfare bill, thereby making some of the poorest in our society even poorer. But I suppose the Government needs someone to pay for the fancy-dress uniforms of the Household Cavalry. And its spectacular welcome is a thank-you to Xi Jinping for his promised investment - the Government needs China's money to supplement the few billions it can wring from its poorest citizens. What for? To finance public infrastructure such as energy generation, water supply and mass-transportation which, thanks to earlier privatisations, no longer serve the population at large so much as those who own the shares. The Government’s solution is that our nuclear power stations will be built, owned and operated by a foreign state which has generated its wealth by growing its economy regardless of collateral damage to the environment and its inhabitants – just as Britain did in the 19th Century. (And, by the way, guess where the profits will go.)

Of course any respectable regime would these days claim to be doing its best to protect the environment, despite the fact that eco-policies are most likely to be at odds with the platform on which political popularity depends – the promise of economic growth. Is it possible to balance the two? What about sustainable economic growth? Well, the obstacle to balance is greed. We all want to live a “comfortable” life, free of hunger and privation but, because there is no universally accepted definition of “comfortable”, the definition of sustainability tends to be stretched to suit.

Ever since we took up farming we have messed with nature and even some of our well-intended interventions in the environment have been misguided – as a study of Yellowstone National Park illustrates. When it was first designated, in 1872, tourists flocked there armed with rifles and almost completely eliminated the wildlife. Left only with scenery, it was, for a while, still considered by most to be the epitome of a wild and natural landscape. Eventually it was recognised that animals ought to be there and so a form of zoo was established to exhibit cuddly mammals. It took until 1995, however, to re-introduce the wolves that had originally been a key species in balancing the ecosystem. Now there is talk of another missing species, homo-sapiens - the aboriginal population evicted by the Europeans. By all accounts the aboriginal tribes lived a sustainable way of life, in harmony with their environment, but who nowadays would be “comfortable” with such an existence? Twenty nine years after humans left the Chernobyl exclusion zone it has been recorded that flora and fauna populations have recovered and now surpass levels prior to the disaster. The evidence suggests that if humans were to return they would prove more deadly to wildlife than radio-active contamination.

Far more money, apparently, is spent on medical research in the effort to prolong human life than is spent on the prevention of ecological degradation. In sport, this would be recognised as an “own goal”.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

The Two Meanings of Destination

I had an encounter, many years ago, with a fellow student, one whose style - scruffy clothes, unkempt beard, smelly sandals - signalled a determination to eschew the prevailing fashions and, as it turned out, the niceties of social etiquette that go with them. One of his theories - one which seemed profound to me at the time - was that travel for its own sake is pointless: journeys of the mind are the only ones that really matter. This argument is, of course, demonstrably flawed in its assertion that there is no mind-expanding benefit to be had from travel.

I haven't travelled anywhere for the past two weeks - not that I'm complaining: I have been to the theatre and cinema to experience journeys of the vicarious and mental varieties and the upside has been enjoying the company of friends and comparing notes with them over a drink or two before retiring to the comfort of home. And we have 'travelled' to a variety of places in the process.

Justin Kurzel's film Macbeth was shot in the Isle of Skye, the beach at Bamburgh Castle and Ely Cathedral - all of which locations seemed perfectly to enhance the visceral mood of the production - and are all places I have been to. It was hard to resist the temptation to whisper, "Ooh, look. It's..." but the dialogue was rather mumbled at times so it was important to concentrate. And the story, familiar as it is, doesn't so much challenge the intellect as illuminate the evils of unfettered greed and ambition.

Ridley Scott's The Martian was also shot in a place I've been to - not Mars, obviously, but Wadi Rum in Jordan. I've read that the science on which the story relies is, to a large extent, feasible. If true, the film is more sci than fi, and I was left questioning only whether I possess the same degrees of ingenuity, gumption and will to survive as Matt Damon.

The setting of Denis Villeneuve's film Sicario is a place I haven't been to and don't have any inclination to visit: a desolate stretch of the US-Mexican border - a desert peppered with ugly settlements overwhelmed by the violence perpetrated by drug dealers. The movie is action-orientated but it does raise the important - and seemingly unanswerable - question of how to end the drug-fuelled cycle of corruption and violence. Incidentally, it also raises the question of why Emily Blunt was cast in what seemed to me a stereotyped character marginal to the plot. The answer is easily deduced: ticket sales.

I didn't go far with Sarah Gavron's film Suffragette: its setting is London's East End - albeit dressed in 1900s grime. And the story, being historical, answers more questions than it asks: it's a film that might help a class of schoolchildren grasp the importance of the enfranchisement of women to the development of social mobility and equality. It might even persuade them of the need to pay attention to politics.

But there were no classes of schoolchildren in the cinema, unlike in the theatre where I saw Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a play which, like Hamlet, is on school curricula. The setting is as well-known as the play itself - although no one has ever been there except in their mind's eye. It's a desolate place, nondescript yet universally recognisable. The meaning of the play has been interpreted in political, philosophical, ethical, Christian, Freudian, Jungian - even homoerotic terms: as far as mental travelling is concerned you may take your pick of destinations, although one reluctant 'traveller' simply wrote in the comments book "Not my cup of tea".

But the main protagonists - scruffy clothes, unkempt beards, smelly footwear, going nowhere - somehow took me back to a place and a time.

Waiting for Godot is touring the UK and Ireland until 28th November.

Saturday, 10 October 2015


Getting away from it all is a phrase we use to mean "taking respite from the tedium of daily life", and the phrase a change is as good as a rest describes the supposed benefit of doing so. Holidays: how much better it would be if they only meant a change of enjoyment instead of respite.

Those who are in regular paid employment will recognise this scenario: doing the company's bidding in exchange for periods of paid leave: it's a fair-enough deal as long as they don't mind spending the greater part of their time doing the company's bidding. Those who are not in regular employment or who are effectively unemployed - like me - may do as we please (means permitting). But but this puts us at risk of doing nothing in particular and, since I am keen to do something with what's left of my time on Earth I like to think of getting away not as escape but as opportunity; to refresh my outlook and check my assumptions.

To this end I look for what it is about other places that makes their peoples' lives different from our own. (How and why do Spaniards eat dinner so late yet still manage to sleep and get up for work in the morning?) During my recent trip to Canada I observed that the way of life is similar to that in the UK, even to the extent that the ongoing national election campaign mirrored the party politics and issues of those at home so faithfully that I could have joined in the debates. Nevertheless the undercurrent of North American culture did tug at my feet and dislodge the tendency to "feel at home". Complacency thus banished, I reflected on how best to resume life back in the UK and I made a resolution to be more focused on those things that are important to me. But resolutions are easily made: application is the thing. "A routine is what you need," said my partner.

A routine sounds boring - and so it may be - but there is a theoretical advantage to having one: a small but regular allocation of time dedicated to sorting out life's essentials can free up enormous amounts of time to spend on other things - such as making oneself and others happy. A priority list is essential, of course: no use using the allocation up on insignificant stuff - you might unexpectedly run out of day before you get around to what really counts. So here was my plan: spend each morning writing. It's the thing I really want to do but don't because I procrastinate.

My new routine worked well: a few hours at the keyboard, in my pyjamas, set me in a good mood: the 'achievement' freed my conscience of the guilt that accompanies procrastination. That first afternoon, feeling pleased with myself - and it being warm and sunny - I walked over to the Northern Quarter, stomping ground of youthful hipsters - to whom I am thankful for the widespread availability of craft ale and authentic coffee - where I spotted two splendid new cafes. I resolved to come back one morning for coffee - before remembering that that my mornings are no longer free for dalliance. The following morning a social obligation necessitated showering, shaving and dressing; the morning after that a software problem distracted my attention for an unnecessarily long time - and so on. By Saturday morning, my resolve had weakened and I was easily persuaded by my partner to go for coffee at one of those newly-discovered places. Unfortunately, they were closed: young hipsters, it seems, have no reason to get up before noon at weekends. So we compromised and went to a predictably reliable chain cafe. It was there I made the case for a two-week sojourn in Athens.

Saturday, 3 October 2015


Having just spent three weeks touring Canada - well, a small part of British Columbia and an even tinier part of Alberta, actually - I am more convinced than ever of the value of preserving cultural diversity. While grateful that the lingua franca, English, was convenient for me, I note that it came at the cost of the annihilation of most of the aboriginal peoples and their 230 languages, to be replaced by the ecological disaster that is global capitalism. Having said that, there are things to enjoy that are uniquely Canadian and the Government does allocate some resources to the preservation and restoration of the environment and to the remnants of the cultures of the First Nations.

As a young man I was once on the verge of emigrating to Canada, tempted by a promotional film which featured all its natural beauty in “glorious” Technicolor and a commentary which emphasised opportunities to prosper on the back of abundant resources - timber, fish, minerals etc. In the end I didn’t follow in the wake of pioneering Brits such as those who left clues to their origins in place names like Didsbury, Tweedsmuir and the Birkenhead River, or those who, more sensitively, stuck with the exotic-sounding native names like Squamish, or those who imaginatively named Muleshoe and the Kicking Horse River. Instead I turned up years later, as a tourist, to see what became of the country I might have helped to shape.

After a few days in the impressive city of Vancouver (which, apparently, is regarded as Hicksville by residents of Toronto) we picked up a campervan and headed towards the coast, the mountains and the valleys - a tall order in a continent which has more of these features than you might possibly imagine. We soon found that in the land of monster trailers and RVs our modest, European-style campervan was something of a curiosity: one Park Ranger was incredulous and asked what it was like to drive a vehicle that didn’t have a 5.5 litre engine. My answer was diplomatically calibrated so as not to give offence by making us sound like invading eco-warriors. Small it may have been, but the van was loaded with so much electrical gadgetry that it would have been impossible to ‘camp’ in it without a 30 amp hook-up: even the bed could not be made up without pressing a button. No problem: the region is awash with fully-serviced RV campgrounds and it’s easy to see why. The great outdoors beckons big-time in this part of the world: it’s vast and beautiful. The tourist industry is geared to it, each centre vying to out-outdoor the next. Whistler, famed for staging the 2010 winter Olympics without snow, is a sophisticated resort, but drive further north and you come to Pemberton - strapline, “the real outdoors”  - and, further still, you reach Lilooet  which is "guaranteed rugged!”

But nature on such a scale is not without danger: on the coast near Tofino we noted the road-signs for the tsunami escape route; in the mountains there were warnings of bears, cougars and moose; in the forests there were graphics indicating levels of fire-risk; and on the roads there were regulations concerning snow-chains, winter tires and mandatory seasonal route closures. We experienced only fine weather, fortunately. And, although we saw a bear ambling along a railway track, a whale to starboard of our ferry, a coyote slinking through the bushes, a marmot and a great many tiny black squirrels, none of them appeared threatening. Nor did we encounter any dangerous Canadians: those we interacted with were invariably polite and always urged us to “have a great day” - even the lady ‘flaggers’ at the numerous road-works gave instructions smilingly - particularly the one who was smoking a joint.

Canada is too big to explore in three weeks but just think: if King George III had played his hand more adroitly, it might have been even bigger.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Marriage: Be Careful What You Wish For

It began last Sunday, a warm summer’s evening deep in the English countryside, where the whiff of money mingles with the sweet scent of new-mown hay and no immigrant has ventured since the Norman invasion. The rural quietude was invaded by the sound of a prop-driven aircraft performing an aerobatic display above the fields, trailing smoke to draw the outline of a heart in the clear, dusking sky. It had been commissioned to make a very public statement of one couple’s love for each other on the occasion of their wedding party and it marked the start of a week during which the custom and practice of marriage has dominated my thoughts.

The next evening I caught up with the film Wild Tales (Spoiler Alerts!), a series of short stories, one of which is about a big wedding party at which the bride discovers her husband’s recent infidelity. She reacts immediately and without restraint, causing the guests a good deal of discomfort - or entertainment, depending on their point of view. The havoc she wreaks on the party is considerable but, in confronting her disillusion head-on and at the beginning of the marriage, she may just have salvaged the relationship. In contrast, the next film I saw, 45 Years, depicts the devastating effect on a wife who realises, after 45 years of marriage, that she was second choice to the woman her husband had always loved but had been unable to marry. In the first film there is hope that the marriage might endure because the skeleton is out of the cupboard, in the latter it is too late to make amends: both ask the question - what are peoples’ expectations of marriage?

Why do people get married? For a variety of reasons, I’m sure: one can only hope they know which ones. The contract of marriage was conceived, originally, as a way of keeping possession of property: it was an alliance, arranged so that land and other assets would remain within a defined family structure - a system which was useful for medieval landowners, who ensured that it was tightly underwritten by laws (which they created) and sanctified by their clergy so as to put the fear of God into dissenters. That love played any part in this process is unlikely.

The next film I saw, Gett, depicts a woman locked into a loveless marriage and undertaking a ten-year long struggle in religious courts to persuade her husband to grant her a divorce. The film is agonising to watch and the message is clear: the institution of marriage is fundamental to the maintenance of a strictly prescribed social structure. The wife’s responsibility is to cook and procreate. Those who uphold this system have no interest in allowing individual cases of human misery to undermine it.

All this while I have been reading Colm Toibin’s novel Norah Webster which looks at the plight of a woman widowed in her forties. It describes the way in which she copes with the loss of the husband she loved and how she subsequently cares for the children. Living, as she does, in the rural and very Catholic Ireland of the 1950s she has sympathy and support - as long as she abides by the rules. Having finished it, I picked up a novel by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Published in 1956, the first chapter introduces us to a newly engaged couple, part of a wealthy London set. The novel is called In the Long Term and, assuming this refers to the marriage, I am very interested to see how it fares.

And this evening I shall be at an actual wedding party where, whatever the hopes and expectations of the bride and groom, I shall be content to feast on the buffet, knock back the booze and wish them well.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land

Not so long ago the news footage on our TV screens featured migrants storming the border between the USA and Mexico. Now it shows migrants at our own border and it is not so easy to distance ourselves from the images. Nor should we: migration is an age-old phenomenon, it is universal and inevitable as long as its causes - war, persecution, poverty and famine - persist. Migrants are mostly desperate people. As Bob said, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” And so they are coming to Europe, notwithstanding the obstacles in their way.

Europe is a politically stable region with a huge economy and vast resources but it should be remembered that its riches were acquired largely by colonial exploitation. Furthermore, the turmoil now rampant in Africa and the Middle East is due, at least in part, to the legacy it has left in these regions. Europe - and Britain is a part of Europe - may not be able to undo the damage it has done but it could and should make amends by alleviating the symptoms. Some countries - Germany and Sweden, for example - appear more willing to accept the recent swell of immigrants than others, notably Britain, whose reluctance is shameful given the prominent part we have played in its causation. So why are we afraid of accepting immigrants? Here are some of the populist objections.

We are a small, overcrowded island. This perception is heightened by the fact that most of us live in cities, many of which seem crowded because their infrastructure has not kept pace with growth. High-density occupation is an inherent - and desirable - feature of cities: it is actually economically beneficial, provided it is well planned and managed. The real problem is that it is not.

Immigrants take our jobs. Jobs only exist where there is economic activity. Immigrants, having no cause for complacency, have an illustrious record of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurial activity creates a bigger economy which in turn creates more jobs for the increased population. Jobs are created as well as “taken”. And we need a bigger working, wealth-generating population to balance the demographics of our ageing population.

Our education system is overwhelmed. The children of immigrants consistently achieve higher educational qualifications than their “native” counterparts and, in doing so, are not only less disruptive in the classroom but also more likely to become net contributors to the economy.

Our social services are under strain. Social services are provided locally but funding is controlled centrally. This contradictory system will never work efficiently. Central Government should let go of this control and allow Local Authorities to allocate resources as appropriate.

Immigrants destroy our culture. If this were true then I would be worried - there is much to treasure and admire in our culture. But there is also a huge residue of prejudice, misconception and ignorance accumulated as a result of historical hogwash and jingoistic insularity. The introduction of other cultures presents an opportunity for cross-fertilisation. Because culture is a process, not an object, integration does not dilute: it enriches and enhances.

Immigrants change the nature of localities. Yes, nothing stays the same: get over it.

The plight of the refugees fleeing violence, death and destruction presents us with an opportunity, as John Buchan put it, to “pay our debt to the past by putting the future in debt to ourselves” but the main obstacle to this humanitarian approach is politics. The accommodation of refugees is a relatively short-term issue but eradicating the drivers of migration is a question for the long-term - and politicians don’t embrace the long-term until they have retired from office. There is no chance that our government will say or do anything helpful to the situation until its electorate insists otherwise.

“This land is your land and this land is my land, sure, but the world is run by those that never listen to music anyway.” (Bob Dylan)

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Another Freudian Slip

When it comes to museums, there are some I have never been inclined to visit, the Pencil Museum in Kendal being one. I have passed its door many times knowing that I can learn the history of Kendal’s pencil manufacturing industry at any time by reading it up - should I ever feel the urge to do so. I may feel differently, however, the next time I’m in the area because, having recently been to the Robert Owen museum, Keats House and the Sigmund Freud Museum - all of them small, specialised collections - I am beginning to appreciate the value of immersing oneself physically in a subject. It’s about engaging the senses in the learning experience and conjuring up that magical quality - atmosphere.

Besides, reading up a subject is easily postponed - sometimes indefinitely - especially in the case of Freud. His theories and practices are famous but, for the layman at least, understood only at a superficial level and, like many complex disciplines, liable to be parodied in the process of popularisation. Nevertheless, surrounded as I was by all things Freud, I became conscious of my subconscious and found it impossible to resist indulging in a little self-psychoanalysis. That dream which features my appearance on stage wearing nothing but a vest: is it really about wish fulfilment? If so, should I sign up for a few sessions on the couch? But no: the damage was done so long ago that it’s too late or too pointless to bother with repairing it. Searching through my earliest memories I recall peering over the side of a ship into the deep green ocean. When, soon after, in my first year of school I painted a picture of a ship on a green sea, the teacher ridiculed me by insisting that the sea is blue. That never-to-be-forgotten humiliation is surely responsible for my enduring artistic inhibition - and my fear of being seen without trousers.

On a more positive note, however, the experience may also have catalysed in me a strong empathy for the tender and impressionable state of infancy. Whenever I see a toddler I think back to that teacher who sought to modify my impressions of the world - despite the fact that she had apparently never gazed into the deep green ocean. Whatever children experience is reality for them. One former child to whom I’m related has just turned eighteen. I first met him on the day he was born and have taken an interest in his progress ever since, encouraging him occasionally to assert his independent view of the world (taking care not to subvert his parents’ hopes). By happy coincidence I was present this week when his father took the three of us to the pub so that his son could ceremonially buy his first round of pints - legally that is. What happened subsequently will probably scar the young man for life.

The bar was busy and we had to wait our turn. When an opening appeared I acted instinctively and caught the barmaid’s eye.
“Three pints of Summer Ale, please”, I shouted. Father and son were talking but, as the barmaid started to pull the pints they looked up and realised that I had spoilt the occasion by calling the order out of turn. My apologies were grudgingly accepted.
“Think of it as one of life’s lessons”, I continued. “You need to be assertive at a busy bar.”
Our first-timer looked unhappy at this unwanted lesson but, I rationalised, he will at least have a story to tell the next generation of legal first-rounders. Besides, as Freud might have said (but didn’t) “It’s a shallow life that doesn’t give a person a few scars.”

Saturday, 15 August 2015

A Window Of One's Own

It’s hard to remember what life used to be like without a PC and an internet connection. How did I find time to do all those chores like banking, application forms and research? I suppose everything just took longer, in which case I should nowadays have more time to spare for loafing about. Strangely, however, that does not seem to be the case. In accordance with Parkinson’s Law, the spare capacity has become filled with other stuff. What’s worse is, despite no longer having to queue at the Post Office to renew the TV licence and road tax, little of the time saved has been dedicated to the causes of philanthropy or self-improvement - one needs a steely determination for that: mostly it’s been squandered on online shopping, interactive social media and software-management. And while I would never blame others for my weakness in the face of temptation, in the case of software I feel entitled to some help.
The last few weeks have seen the launch of Windows 10, the latest version of an operating system for Microsoft-driven PCs. I signed up and was duly upgraded from Windows 8 which, by general accord, had been proven to be counter-intuitive, difficult to navigate, frustrating and time-consuming. Microsoft, realising that frustrated customers are likely to become ex-customers, decided to fix the problem by re-designing the operating system so that it is less gimmicky and more practical. Behind this exercise lies the principle that the system should mimic the way our brains work and, in this respect, they are making some progress. When, for example, we want to find a file it is useful to see a symbol of a file prominently displayed on the screen. But a more ambitious feature - speaking a request instead of typing it - has some way to go: when I asked “Where is the Sigmund Freud museum?” the response was “I have no results for the Sigmund Floyd museum”. My diction or theirs?
But brains don’t all work in the same way - our cranial operating systems are individually developed and honed for navigation through the complexities of whatever lives we experience. We start as infants, pressing the virtual keys of life randomly to see what will happen; we progress through childhood, exploring their functions in a more purposeful way; as teenagers we focus intensely on just a few of those functions; as adults we broaden or strengthen our interests until, in old age, we are in a position to refine them by ditching those we are disillusioned with, tired of or no longer capable of pursuing.
The Windows 10 operating system, impressive as it is, takes insufficient account of this progression. When it loads for the first time the screen fills up with gaming apps and entertainment gizmos that may be crucial to some users but are of secondary importance to others. Yes, it is possible to “personalise your Windows experience” by changing the background theme and wallpaper, but I’m sure those clever people who write the code could do better than that. What I would like to see is an operating system that comes ready-tailored so that I don’t have to spend quite so much time fathoming out what X-box is and why I don’t need it - which would leave more time for my preferred interests.
How about a version of Windows with my name on it? Surely all that’s required is some input from me - date of birth, sexual orientation, cultural and educational background, degree of curmudgeonliness, inclination to pedantry, aversion to light classical music etc. - for the developers to make my OS fully bespoke? They could include, for example, the latest Saga app which could be continuously and automatically updated as I get older: font sizes would increase, healthcare apps would be introduced to remind me of doctors’ appointments and medication schedules. I might finally get some quality loafing time - as long as I can resist the ensuing bombardment of precisely targeted advertising, that is.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

...And All That Jazz

When the need arose for me to terminate a Virgin Media broadband account I found out that there is no easy way to do it. It requires persistence, determination and a couple of hours on the phone just to reach the disconnection team, protected as they are by ranks of gatekeepers.
May I ask why you wish to terminate? Are you unhappy with the service? asked the disconnection lady.
No, I said, as calmly as I could, As Ive explained several times to your colleagues, the service has been fine but the property is being sold and so it is no longer needed.
The process is certainly a test of ones self-control and not recommended for those inclined to apoplexy but, fortunately, I had been prepared by an earlier experience which was so ridiculous that it took me beyond exasperation and left me in the bemused zone. The Post Office had turned down my application for a credit card because its system jumbled up my address whenever the man tried to enter my postcode.
Cant you enter the address manually? I asked.
No. Sorry. he said, with no acknowledgement of the irony inherent in the fact that the postcode had been allocated bythe Post Office.

These irritations - the teething problems of a technological society in its infancy - are best endured stoically. There are pleasures elsewhere which compensate us, not least the annual Manchester Jazz Festival. Performances take place at various venues but there is a hub comprising a giant marquee, a temporary bar and several food stalls erected in front of the Town Hall. Surrounded as it is on three sides by roads, its not a quiet location and this year, as the organiser pointed out in his introductory speech, the MJF coincides with the Manchester Roadworks Festival. The programmers might perhaps have considered putting the quiet, reflective artists in the permanent venues and reserving the marquee for acts which have a fighting chance of being heard. No matter, the central location of the hub appears to be an important factor in bringing jazz to the attention of people who might otherwise not go out of their way to hear it. Accustomed as I am to jazz gigs being thinly attended, I marvel at the difference a Festival can make. Not only in the marquee but also in other venues the habitual audience of older white men and sundry jazz aficionados is swollen - sometimes to capacity - by a more diverse mix of age, gender and ethnicity. Even small children are present - though this might have more to do with the fact that the schools are closed and the weather is poor than it has with parents being keen to share their enthusiasm with their offspring.

A Festival can also present organisers with opportunities to promote a wide range of musical styles and to be adventurous in their setting. John Surman, for example, played saxophones with a string quartet in the great domed reading room of the Central Library, utilising the unique acoustic properties of the space to enhance the ethereal sounds of his music. I was entranced but, between the numbers, I realised that something was missing from this and all the other gigs Ive seen before and since: bottle-holders. Musicians - lowly and exalted, young and old, able-bodied and infirm - all must stoop to the floor to retrieve their bottles of water, beer or whatever. Why has no one thought to design, make and patent a bottle holder which clips on to the stem of a music or mic stand? Convinced I had spotted a business opportunity I began drawing up mental plans for such a device but was distracted by the music and, later, my phone vibrating. Afterwards I saw that I had missed a call from the Virgin Media loyalty team - the fifth so far.