Saturday, 27 February 2016

Wallpaper Speaks Volumes

Just lately I’ve been feeling sorry for our younger generations. For them, it seems, the future is mostly doom-laden. From the moment they are born, or so it has just been reported, our babies stand a higher chance of dying than others in Europe. Those who survive long enough to attend school can expect a non-holistic education, varying in quality according to socio-geographic factors. At 18 they might get a low-paid job in the service industries or the offer of a loan with which they can try their luck at higher education. And, having got thus far, they must try to find a way to earn enough to house themselves in a market which is deliberately kept expensive because the nation’s wealth is measured, largely, in the candy-floss value of house prices. The fact that they haven’t yet taken to the streets in mass protest must be down to the inherent optimism and resilience of youth.
It is possible that my pity for the young is exacerbated by the nostalgic mist through which I view my own formative years - as evidenced this week on a visit to the Whitworth Art Gallery, where I was almost overcome by nostalgia at the sight of a display of wallpapers from the 1960s. The designs, executed with the same bold, open modernity as the buildings they were intended to decorate, rekindled in me the feeling of excitement which I felt back then whenever I came across examples of futuristic architecture rising from the bombed ruins of post-war Plymouth. Modernity spoke to me of social emancipation, progress, experimentation and the determination to re-build society at a higher level of aspiration. It all came flooding back when I saw that wallpaper.

And in an adjoining room there is even more from the period: an exhibition of the work of Tibor Reich, designer and manufacturer of furnishing fabrics and ceramics during the 1950s and 1960s. Tibor was one of those many immigrants who enriched our culture by introducing a new way of looking at objects and who had the industriousness to bring them into our homes and public spaces. Displayed were those familiar colours and textures which smouldered then with the promise of modernity – and still do. They were designs which left the 19th century behind and embraced a new age.
As I studied them I contemplated the privileges of my youth: the state-provided milk and orange juice in infancy; dentistry and general healthcare throughout secondary school; and grant-aided university education leading to guaranteed employment for those who wanted it. My heart went out to the youth of today for whom society is unwilling to provide the same level of nurture. In the grasping world of uber-capitalism, with the NHS falling apart and the TTIP agreement promising American companies a chance to take it over, it seems to send the message “Sink or swim: you’re on your own”.
At the end of the week I was with a group of other smugly comfortable Baby Boomers as we left a restaurant and wandered through the streets of the trendy Northern Quarter looking for a suitable place for a nightcap. It was a tall order, this being the territory of the millennials, whose priority is not to sit in cosy corners but to be dynamic and meet other millennials. But, just as ours was beginning to look like a lost cause, we ventured into a place that was relatively calm and, to our surprise and delight, welcoming. Our bearded host was exceptionally polite and accommodating. “Do come again,” he said as we left.
“Perhaps he felt sorry for us old has-beens?” I ventured to my pal.
“Huh! It’s more likely that his predatory instinct was aroused by a sniff of the Baby Boomer pound”, he replied.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

There's No Getting Away From It

I see too plainly custom forms us all. Our thoughts, our morals, our most fixed belief, are consequences of our place of birth” wrote Aaron Hill, dramatist, 1685-1750. I came across this quote while I was reading Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor’s story of a mythical settlement somewhere in Minnesota, and it seemed apt insofar as the settlers brought to that place, where they had no history, their cultural baggage from Europe. They began to build a community on the various foundations of Norwegian Lutheranism, German Catholicism and an obscure but specific branch of Plymouth Brethren Protestantism. Over the years they beavered away, isolated from the main centres of population, farming the land pioneer-style while the broader American society developed its cultural identity, eventually sucking in their descendants.
Of course there were no museums in Lake Wobegon although, over time, I imagine one may have been founded. It might have contained examples of horse-drawn ploughshares in the Nowegian, German and English styles, for example. Children would be taken there by their grandparents to understand their history and how it formed them. Here, in NW England, we have quite a few museums since this is where momentous cultural change was brought about by the rapid industrialisation of the wool and cotton industries. But now Lancashire County Council is now so short of money (because of cuts in Central Government grants) that it will have to cease funding five of the local museums so that it can continue to provide more critical services. It’s hard to believe that in this, the world’s fifth richest economy, publicly funded museums have become unaffordable but the fact is that the billions of pounds generated by UK plc are being resolutely diverted away from any public or social enterprise. Privatisation is the only option the Government will contemplate and, despite consequences such as widening social inequality, housing shortages and crises in healthcare, education and the justice system, the money earned by the economy accumulates to relatively few individuals who preside over the cultural impoverishment of the country as a whole. Perhaps one of them will step forward and donate the measly £1.13 million needed to replace LCC’s annual contribution?
Failing that, Lancashire stands to lose historic buildings like the Judges Lodgings in Lancaster, Queen St. Mill in Burnley and Helmshore Mills – all of which will soon become vulnerable to developers hungry to convert them into flats. If that happens then, according to Aaron Hill’s theory, it would mean that the next generation of Lancastrians, living in buildings bearing names from a forgotten history set in a cultural desert, would grow up as scions of unreconstructed capitalism. We must surely battle to save them from such a bleak future. My contribution – apart from making a fuss – is to visit the museums, pay my (concessionary) entrance fee and buy tea-towels from the gift shops. I urge all who can to do the same and, once we have built a sufficient head of steam, we can take to the streets waving our tea-towels in unison.
I have already been to some of the museums but continue to work through the remainder. This week it was Helmshore Mills, where staff maintain the Victorian machinery and run it at regular intervals. They demonstrate just how horribly dangerous it was to work there, which is not a heritage to be proud of, but I suppose such working conditions did induce a sort of stoicism which lingers today in the older folk, such as the grandfather who was there with his three grand-children. Every now and then I overheard him explaining how things were done “in the old days” though, to be honest, the children’s response was mute. Perhaps it’s too late for them: they may already have been sucked into capitalism’s unconcern for their past.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

No Selfies Here

If you fail to implement your New Year resolutions during January you get an opportunity to re-boot them in early February when the Chinese New Year comes around. I tried it myself. Having resolved to get to get to grips with Instagram, and conscious that my 21 followers might be eager to see my next post (the last was in 2014 when, in a rush of enthusiasm, I opened an account and tried it out), I took a snap of the street decorations celebrating the Year of the Monkey and put it out there. It got three likes. To be honest, it wasn't a great photo: the composition was poor and the lighting so-so; and I couldn't get the hang of the editing function. I fear my followers may lose faith unless I up my game.

My resolutions also include a list of places to visit, one of which, the Wedgwood Museum, is by happy coincidence also on a friend's list. So we made a date and, one sunny morning last week, travelled by train to Stoke-on-Trent. I took my camera/phone/portable communications device thinking there might be rich pickings for my Instagram followers. In the event, however, I became so absorbed in the history that I forgot all about them. Anyway, I reasoned, does anyone really want to see a photo of Dave and me posing awkwardly in front of a display cabinet?

Design by Ravilious
We found that the museum has morphed into the Wedgwood Experience. Having spent millions on re-housing the collection (following its rescue from the fire-sale which followed the collapse of the pension fund to which it had been entrusted) the new owners are keen to make their investment pay off. The Experience includes a tour of the factory, entry to the museum and opportunities to throw pots, decorate plates and take tea and/or lunch. We opted for the tour, followed by lunch and a visit to the museum (which was brief on account of our having lingered over too many glasses of Shiraz).

Design by Paolozzi

Our factory-tour guide was brisk and efficient and, if she was disappointed that there were only three of us, didn't show it as she pointed out the fire-exits and forbade us to take photos. Much of the manufacturing process now benefits from technology and automation but the few employees who remain are surely on their way to celebrity status. We watched in admiration as Debbie attached handles to cups, Derek applied 18 carat gold to plates and Christine painted a horse-race scene onto a £20k trophy-vase commissioned for a Canadian racecourse. I began to understand the photography ban: celebrities can be touchy about being photographed when they are not looking their best; and there is the matter of commercial sensitivity which applies to some of the commissioned works - though not, apparently, to the 19,000 piece dinner service destined for the Presidential Palace of Abu Dhabi which we were allowed to view and which is, by the way, unremarkable.

Pamphlet from 1788
The museum contains an overwhelming number of objects, some dating from the very beginning of Josiah Wedgwood's enterprise, but - beautiful as they are - one soon tires of china-wares. The real inspiration here is the man himself. Remarkable for his energy, insight and principles, he was an inventor, innovator and designer as well as an entrepreneur and social reformer. He supported the development of a canal system (which facilitated the shipping of his goods), but was also a member of the Lunar Society and an active proponent of the anti-slavery movement and, at the age of 38, had a leg amputated. Incidentally, his daughter married the son of Erasmus Darwin and they begat Charles Darwin. There's no way to Instagram all that so I've included my photos here.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Global Village Plundered

This week I had occasion to dust off the campervan and spend a couple of nights in parts of rural England where ‘progress’ is moderated by the indigenous population’s affinity to the old ways. Such places give the comforting impression that people still have roots and that there remains some variety in the ‘global village’ we all inhabit. One night was spent at a prosperous-looking farm where the aged but sprightly lady in charge looked and sounded like a 1950s caricature (but drove a state-of-the-art Land Cruiser). The next night I was on a smallholding where the rooster woke us in the early hours. Charmingly rustic, I thought, and a change from the screech of emergency sirens back home. The smallholder, however, complained that it had woken him and that, since it was probably a fox alert, he could not get back to sleep.

I ended up in Lincolnshire, where the land is a larder and every village has a butcher’s shop – sometimes two. Like a man drinking in the last-chance saloon, I stocked up on locally produced delicacies such as stuffed chine, pork pies, haslet and award-winning Lincolnshire sausages. The good thing about traditions is that some of them are really rather good.
I got back to Manchester in time to deal with the tax deadline. I transferred what I owed HMRC online, while waiting for the plumber to turn up. He was an hour late. “Sorry,” he said “I had to go to the post office to pay my tax.”
“You found a post office?” I said. He did not look amused. I tried introducing the hot topic of the day, Google’s agreement to pay a paltry sum of tax – more as a PR exercise than an acknowledgement of liability – but my man had his head in the cistern and was not really following the argument.
“I only just made it. They fine you if you pay late,” was all he said.

Later I read about the problems of social deprivation which are plaguing Seattle, the home of Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon – notorious tax-avoiders all. The city, like most others, does not have the resources to deal fully with homelessness, drug-addiction and crime, yet its public penury could be remedied by a contribution from the massive wealth of its corporations. Do corporations think that they exist in a separate universe? Henry Ford had at least the sense to see that paying his employees a decent wage enabled them to have sufficient disposable income with which to buy his cars. His motive may have been more selfish than philanthropic but it was certainly a practical approach to the new economics of industrialisation. I hear that Walmart has decided to do something similar and that there is even a tech company in California which is experimenting with paying all its employees the same rate. But these are examples of exceptional corporate policy. We cannot rely on corporations to do the right thing: “corporations have neither bodies to be punished nor souls to be condemned; they therefore do as they like.”*

 And if what they like is to avoid paying tax, they are well placed.  Having transformed themselves into global entities they can effectively ignore national tax jurisdictions. The global village works fine for them: it’s one big market-place with no tax-gathering authority in attendance. While lunching on poached egg and haslet, however, I thought of a possible solution to this conundrum: authorise the United Nations to collect taxes. Recalcitrant payers could be threatened with its peacekeeping force although, on reflection, the mechanisms for collecting and allocating the monies raised would probably swallow up most of the revenue. And there would remain local issues: we wouldn’t want the plumber facing international sanctions for not getting to the post office on time.

*Edward Thurlow, 1st Baron Thurlow: was Lord Chancellor from 1778 to 1783 and again from 1783 to 1792.