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.