Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Provinces Are Calling

Some of us shout into our phones, others speak at what might be considered normal volume, yet others whisper. All three types might be speaking in what, to them, is their usual conversational mode, but the seasoned eavesdropper can detect exaggerated elements of a person's character - from extroversion through to introversion – in the correlated  tendencies either to perform or be discreet.

This week, on the train from Manchester to London, a young woman sat opposite me and answered a call in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the carriage. She spoke a very entertaining vernacular and one which left me in no doubt that she would be alighting at Stoke-on-Trent. But the real interest was in what she was saying. Her caller was a friend asking for repayment of a loan. Our protagonist explained why she was currently unable to oblige, listing her income and expenditure for the past month, but offering hope in the form of the prospect of a compensation payment consequent on the outcome of an employment tribunal. It also emerged that she had left herself short by “borrowing” money to someone else. The use of the word borrow to mean either lend or borrow is something I've heard before. I've puzzled over how to distinguish between the two different and opposite meanings when using the same verb and conclude that, for people who have no money, it probably amounts to the same thing: the recycling of a scarce commodity. By the time we arrived at Stoke our protagonist had called the person to whom she had borrowed money, extracted a promise of repayment, called her creditor back and made an arrangement not only to settle up but also to have a pint together in the process. We were all very happy for her.

Arriving in London I was expecting to see evidence of a phenomenon reported in the press recently: twenty-somethings migrating from the capital to regional cities (but not Stoke) in search of careers and affordable housing. These reports are apparently exaggerated. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings the streets of Shoreditch and Hoxton were seething with young people deciding which of the myriad bars, restaurants and micro-breweries were the coolest in which to splash their cash. I guess they must be the ones who don't fancy the provinces and have given up on the hopeless task of saving for a deposit to buy a shoebox, preferring instead to blow it all on being young.

While London property prices have risen beyond the means of average earners, those who have been ensconced a long time are reaping the benefit: and none more so than the City of London's medieval craft guilds. I attended a lecture at the Clothworkers Hall - which sounds like the name of a run-down trade union headquarters in a northern town, but is in fact the plush and venerable home of one of the guilds, the Clothworkers' Company. With millions in rent rolling in annually from its land-holdings in the City, it's a wealthy organisation with profound connections to the establishment. The good news is that it distributes its surplus millions to charitable causes, though it's a pity that it is also complicit in the perpetuation of a socio-political system from which the need for charity largely stems.

The next day I went along to see Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album currently showing at another repository of great wealth, the Courtauld institute. I was lucky in that there were very few visitors, enabling a close study of the intriguing drawings. It was also quiet, so I was embarrassed when my phone played its jaunty little tune. I answered as discreetly as I could but, despite my reverential tone and the mundanity of the subject, the attendant frowned and gestured for me to leave the room. I might have got away with this in Stoke, I thought.

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