Friday, 29 January 2016

Art For The Masses

This week I went to Another Place – i.e. the seashore at Crosby: Another Place is the name of Anthony Gormley’s art installation there. It comprises a hundred cast-metal replicas of his body set on the shoreline, facing out to sea. I’ve previously only seen photos of the work looking enigmatic and beautiful with the sun setting over a seemingly endless expanse of sand which falls, almost imperceptibly, into the beckoning horizon. The day I visited, however, the sky was the colour of an old tin bath and the wind brought tears to my eyes. Never mind, I thought, don’t be disappointed: outdoor-art must necessarily be appreciated in all weathers and, in any case, the concept of “perfect conditions” is entirely subjective. Look for the beauty in the present: perfection– if you’re lucky enough to come across it - is rare.

It is abundant, however, in the cinematography of Hou Hsiao-hsien whose film The Assassin I saw the following day. He fills the screen with meticulously detailed costumes, sets and characters - all shot lasciviously in sumptuous colour. Three red-ripe pomegranates artfully poised in an elegant bowl particularly caught my eye and seemed to me to epitomise the aesthetic and symbolise the ethos of the ancient Chinese traditions depicted in the movie. But there is an unseen side to the visual gorgeousness, choreographed movement and formalised interaction idealised in this film which niggled me throughout: the unjust system of social repression which enabled an elite few to live in such privilege, pomp and luxury. By the end I had become so incensed that I began to sympathise with Chairman Mao’s attempt to obliterate such a culture. This may seem like an over-reaction but I was already inclined that way having watched recently the third episode of War & Peace in which various Counts, Princes and their degenerate dependents obsess about their privileged lives while the so-far-unseen majority of Russians endure a life of slavery, their euphemism for which is serfdom.

As you may have gathered, I’m at the end of my tether when it comes to the celebration of so-called nobility. It was refreshing, therefore, to see a film which has a more proletarian theme. Never on Sunday is set in Piraeus where I spent some time recently. It was released in 1960 but I had never seen it and was motivated to do so when, on visiting a museum in Athens, I learned something about the Greek cultural icons who were involved in its creation. The film contained an incidental surprise in the form of the appearance of a couple Royal Navy sailors wearing HMS MANCHESTER insignia on their caps. It also sprang a couple of revelations on me: first was that Greek men, like their Russian counterparts (as seen in the last episode of War & Peace) have a similar style of solo dance which involves strong liquor and slow, exaggerated macho gestures; second was that Melina Mercouri wasn’t just a singer and didn’t always wear big, thick-rimmed spectacles.

Films, much as I love them, are set pieces, fixed in the mode of their creation. I have no inclination to see them more than once. Gormley’s men on the beach, however, do tempt me back. I saw them when the tide was out and they stood oblivious of me and other admirers: the curious who wanted to touch their barnacles, stroke their smooth parts or dress them in funny hats; children playing around them; dogs chasing balls along the beach. I would like to observe them alone as they disappear under an advancing tide or face a lashing thunderstorm. I imagine that all the while they, like me, are waiting stoically for that perfect moment when the sun sets in a cloudless sky and reflects its fiery light off the water and into their unseeing eyes.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Sociable Drinking

It seemed an unlikely place but nevertheless, in the gift shop at the Tate Britain gallery, I found what I have been seeking: the ideal teapot. Not that buying a teapot was the highlight of my visit - the exhibition Artist & Empire has much to commend it - but it's a promising start to the year and I have a feeling that it will delight me in small but satisfying ways each time I brew up. It might even encourage me to try drinking tea socially: offering guests caffeine instead of alcohol would present opportunities to impress them not only with the stylish teapot but also with my steely resolve to cultivate sobriety.
I'm not generally in favour of New Year's resolutions preferring, instead, a more frequent review (say, weekly) of habitual behaviour, to identify unwanted tendencies and correct course for the general direction of virtuousness. Each January I have the same argument with a certain person over the merits or otherwise of his self-imposed tee-total month. I argue that his concept appears to have, at best, some questionable, short-term health benefits and - leaving aside the possibility that it might be an act of penitence - otherwise serves no practical purpose. This year he has softened and allowed himself some social drinking capacity. Drinking is deeply embedded in social interactions but therein lies a dilemma: imbibe too much and you risk alienating yourself by behaving anti-socially; refuse a drink and you risk being labelled anti-social anyway. And lately it seems I have walked this tightrope so often that I ought to be getting good at balancing.
For example, meeting a particular friend for "a few beers" has become a recurring event and one which is more enjoyable since I adopted the policy of ordering half-pints. On the last occasion, however, we found ourselves drawn into a pub by a live blues band and there, caught up in a good, old-fashioned, feel-good crush, I may have had one too many. But live blues and beer is a combination that's hard to resist.

Informal dinner parties also present challenges to moderation. My partner and I were invited to dinner by her oldest friend and, since she and her husband live in rural Surrey, they put us up for the night. The assumption was that we would want to drink, which we did - too much and too fast, so excited were we at being in their company after rather too long a break. Perhaps there is something to be said for the formality of an aperitif, followed by a glass of Sancerre with the fish, a glass - two at most - of Claret with the main course, Sauternes with dessert and a digestif to end. It's a structure that facilitates paced as opposed to uncontrolled drinking.

But in between the drink-fuelled socialising I have remained sufficiently sober to take in a few cultural events, Annie Leibovitz's solo show at Wapping among them. The photos on display are all of women, accompanied by some interesting text in which she promotes her ideal of equality between male and female, arguing in favour of obliterating gender distinctions wherever possible. In support she quotes several African languages which, she claims, do not accommodate gender distinctions, in contrast to others such as French which attribute gender even to inanimate objects, thereby encouraging the perception of difference.

I also went along to Celts at the British Museum where I was fascinated by medieval bling in the form of torcs, precious metal necklaces worn by both sexes. I also noted that they had a fondness for the drink but had developed an effective social mechanism for controlling its consumption: they removed the element of choice by passing around communal drinking bowls - some of them very stylish indeed.

The Great Torc of Snettisham and a ceremonial drinking bowl

Saturday, 16 January 2016


Control freaks, brace yourselves: sometimes you just have to go with the flow, as events this week have reminded me. At 09.00 on Sunday morning contractors recommenced digging a trench in the main road adjacent to our block; then at 10.00 an alarm began to sound in the courtyard; and at 11.00 a sinkhole opened up in the side-road next to it. It began to seem like a good idea to go out for the rest of the day so, after calling block management and the highway authority, that’s just what I did. Of course I was fortunate in not having firm plans for a quiet day at home; and in being solvent, mobile and within walking distance of myriad alternative venues; all of which was just as well since, as it turned out, it was more than just the day. The disruption continued for two days and nights. But, taking a positive view, I looked on the necessity of removing myself as an opportunity and during that time I saw several films, explored digital resources in the library and had a haircut that wasn’t really necessary.
One of the films I saw was The Danish Girl and it coincided with my having just read Jan Morris’s 1975 account of her transgender journey, Conundrum, in which she refers to Lili Elbe (the Danish girl), the first chronicled recipient of transgender surgery. This theme is in marked contrast with that of the next film, Jean Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (I was not legally allowed to see it when it first came out in 1963), which is so fixated on an iconic object of conventional male sexual desire that it made me realise how alienated transgender people must have felt – and undoubtedly still do.
Then I watched Jaco: The Film, an account of the rise and fall of Jaco Pastorius, the innovative musician credited with elevating the art of bass-playing to extraordinary heights but who suffered mental illness and died quite young. I am an admirer of his music and thankful that so much of it was recorded but, because his musical medium was jazz, his work is not as widely known or appreciated as that of others. Which brings me to David Bowie: the day after he died I was at the barber’s shop, waiting my turn while the radio in the corner played his songs interspersed with listeners’ reminiscences of their favourite Bowie moments. I would venture to claim that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, though we all did our best not to show it, and when it came my turn in the chair I pretended that I had a hair in my eye. The barber said nothing but shook his head every now and then.
The library, however, was a Bowie-free zone. It was practically a book-free zone as well, so many of its habitués were reading from screens. In fact, Google was there with a series of pop-up seminars on improving your digital presence and, afraid of being left out, I signed up for one before returning home.
Roadworks ceased at 17.00 but the alarm continued to sound through the night: the agents kept sending contractors to silence it but none had been able either to identify its cause or gain access to it. I remained calm – “mindful” in the current jargon – stuffed in some earplugs and slept reasonably well. On the second night I watched a couple of episodes of the BBC’s new production of War and Peace using big, chunky head-phones so that I could hear the dialogue. Then, as I was about to go to bed, a mechanical digger started up on the street and contractors began to excavate the sinkhole.  Now, I thought, is the real test of mindfulness: or, to be honest, those dense foam earplugs.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Peering Behind The Headlines

One of the things I like about travelling abroad is that it disrupts routines and presents different perspectives, particularly when it comes to news and current affairs. Unfamiliar or random online news-feeds oblige you to see things from a different point of view: like the old gag that the Yorkshire Evening Post (had it existed in 1666) would have reported the Great Fire of London with the headline “Leeds Man Escapes Burning House”.
Despite the novelty of perspective, however, there is a disadvantage if, for example, you habitually follow the thread of political developments via particular news and current affairs media. When I returned to Manchester at the beginning of the week I slipped comfortably back into the habit of watching the seven o’clock news on Channel 4, as presented by the genial Jon Snow and his team. Much of the content comprises the manoeuvrings of politicians and makes sense only if followed continuously. But news, in a sense, is a continuum in so far as events comprise a series of developments connected as per interdependence theory. The connections may be too complex for us to comprehend fully and the presentation of news is likely to be edited subjectively in some degree or other but perhaps, one day, a supercomputer will be employed to sort it all out (another white-collar job bites the dust) and we may all get to see what really lies behind the headlines.
This week President Obama was seen shedding tears over the frequent mass-murders of Americans by fellow citizens. The footage may add weight to his plea for legislation to control the availability of guns - I hope it does - but even if he succeeds, the murders will continue: the guns are already out there. The pro and anti-gun lobbies may argue forever but they do not address the real issue: the shooters are people who have become so alienated and detached from society that they are without empathy. Society therefore has a problem which gun-control legislation will not resolve.
And, in London, headline news announced an increase in the use of knives to settle disputes between rival gangs. Some expressed outrage at the fact that lethally dangerous knives can be bought easily - some are even designed to appeal to gang members - and urged that steps should be taken to outlaw such weapons. Well, yes but, as with guns in the US, knives have been and always will be available to those who want them. Violent gang culture is due to a range of social factors which, although well known, are not being addressed adequately. A more insightful headline for the news would have been “It is a false economy to spend money passing legislation and enforcing the banning of knives while simultaneously cutting the resources available to social services dedicated to tackling the root cause of their mis-use.”
And North Korea, it was reported on Tuesday, has “successfully” exploded a hydrogen bomb. In doing so it employs the same tactics as the street-gangs of London: Kim Jong-un believes that the way to protect his interests is to cut up rough with the other gangs (i.e. nations). The concept of soft, economic power is, it seems, not an option and signing up to the International Non-Proliferation Treaty is a mug’s game (they withdrew from it in 2003).
Given that nations find it so difficult to identify and tackle root causes of conflict on the domestic front, the prospects for international agreement don’t look good at all. The North Korean state seems to bear a deep grudge against us which, along with its secretive and unpredictable politics, makes the fact of its Nazi-like dedication to militarism very scary. And talking of scary, take a look at the woman who announced the joyous news of the nuclear explosion. (Short video clip).

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Foreign Feelings

Piraeus is the second-busiest passenger port in the world, but it’s not a tourist town. The millions of tourists who board the ferries and cruise ships here are on their way to other places: there’s not a lot to gawp at in Piraeus. Outside of the port area the town comprises a mass of residential five-story blocks - except for the hill overlooking the ancient fishing harbour on the opposite side of the peninsula, where the steeply winding streets accommodate smart-looking houses and villas. The fact that the population is not at all diverse (I haven’t seen one Chinese or Indian restaurant) makes this a good location for a couple of weeks of experiencing a habitat different from one’s own - which is what we’ve been doing. Think of our sojourn here as an exercise in questioning assumptions of the way we live and the habits we have fallen into back at home. Think of it also as an opportunity to reflect upon what it is to be English – as opposed to, say, Greek.

There have been some desultory attempts lately - prompted by the question of immigrant integration into British society - to pin down a definition of British - or English - values. But it’s a slippery concept: the often bitterly contested differences between our main political parties should be enough to demonstrate that there is no absolute consensus when it comes to defining national values. But there is another, less conscious and more subtle level on which national cultural characteristics are acquired: by absorption rather than consent. Consider these lines from a novel by Zia Haider Rahman (a second generation immigrant educated at Oxford) where he is describing a stranger: “His body was that tiny bit removed from stillness that is the mark of a kind of Englishness”. No, I don’t quite know what he means either, but I do know what he’s getting at: there are some very subtle cultural tics that distinguish one society from another.

So here we are in Piraeus, an in-between existence, living among locals but not of the locality; some days taking the Metro to the nearby tourist honeypot of Athens, other days staying put;  lingering in the laid-back coffee bars and buying supplies at the family-run shops which pepper the streets of these densely populated few square kilometres. It’s very enjoyable but, with each passing day, I become more uneasy about just one thing: my ignorance of the Greek language. It’s all very well in central Athens where the tables are turned: English is the lingua franca of the omnipresent tourism industry and any Greek operative refusing to use it would be committing commercial suicide. But here, in the sanctuary of their homeland so to speak, it feels disrespectful to assume that the same applies.

Of course I have learned a few words – whole phrases even – but the application of them is problematic. Building up confidence to use them for the first time is one thing but the real difficulty begins when, after having executed a flawless salutation, such as kalimera, it becomes immediately apparent to all present that there is no more. I then look sheepish, smile a lot and start to babble apologies - in English - for my lack of competence. More often than not I have been rescued from embarrassment by the natives who either speak English themselves or can summon a person who does. In the family-run shops, for example, parents serving at counters call their children from the back rooms to translate - then listen carefully to see whether the money they spent on their education has been well-invested.

Soon it will be time to scuttle back home. I’m reluctant to leave but I am looking forward to being in a place where I can feel more comfortable about being, well, English.