Saturday, 26 March 2016

Customary Practices

I watched in amazement as a large lady, made larger by the several bags (and larger still by the two black bin-bags full of inflated balloons) she was 'carrying', squeezed herself and all her stuff into our already-packed rush-hour tube train. From where I stood the potential for a Benny Hill-style comedy sketch was obvious, but there was only po-faced disapproval among those in her immediate vicinity. For while her action was undoubtedly a triumph of determination, did it not also display a certain disregard for the comfort of her fellow passengers? There was, of course, no vocal condemnation of her apparently selfish behaviour. In fact there evolved a noticeable sympathy for her predicament when it became obvious from her embarrassed apologies that she was a foreigner and, as such, might be excused for not comprehending the local customs. Someone even offered up their seat so that the balloons might have sole occupation of the space above it.

Having received recently an invitation to a "black tie" dinner, I know that no such tolerance will be afforded me if I fail to observe the rules of engagement for the function: they are clearly prescribed by tradition and practice, especially in this case, given that the venue is Lord's Cricket Ground. I won't be able to claim cultural immunity as a foreigner. Also, I recognise that the invitation subtly embodies a challenge: to demonstrate one's English credentials in the matter of etiquette. Still, I have been well placed this past week to observe some other venerated establishments which are emblems of the English tradition and which appear also to be resistant to change.

A visit to Oxford one day took me to the Ashmolean Museum and the Bodleian Library both of which (and for all their oddly, foreign-sounding names) are revered as ancient pillars of Oxford University. Their collections are indubitably important, but I admit to spending very little time contemplating them since it was a crisp, clear, sunny day, ideal for strolling around admiring the architecture of the University's historic buildings feeling, all the while, proprietorial around the foreign tourists.

Then there was a tour of the Old Bailey, courtesy of a friend whose work there entitles him to an 'access all areas' pass. The old (1907) court building is imposing and, presumably, was designed as such to assert the authority of the judiciary. All but the most hardened of criminals would have been cowed by the architecture and, in case they were not, there was a final, symbolic flourish in 'dead man's walk', the gloomy external passageway leading to Newgate gallows. Here the condemned were obliged to walk through a series of openings in the building's buttresses, each one smaller than the last. It's no longer in use, of course, but many of the traditions of the institution have been preserved, thanks mainly to the owner of the buildings, the Corporation of London, whose vast wealth is deployed to offset the austerity of successive Governments.

But not all tradition is posh. Further down the social strata, another friend and I explored the state of some erstwhile working-class boozers on a pub-crawl along the Mile End Road. Some have been born-again in keeping with changing tastes and circumstances but, with the call to prayer from the East London Mosque echoing along the rows of oriental shop-fronts, the evening was tinged with exoticism. Mind you, this part of London preserves another sort of English tradition: that of accommodating displaced foreigners.

So, on checking the small print of my invitation to Lords, I note that, after the stipulation of 'carriages at 11.00', there is a concession to modernity: it asks whether one has any special dietary requirements. In the hope that my host is reading this, I would just like to say "Yes: a decent, traditional claret, please."

Friday, 18 March 2016

Comfortable In Cultural Skin

I like living here, in England. I have sometimes been tempted to emigrate, to live my life abroad, but the inducements of sunnier climes, cheaper houses, bigger salaries, smaller tax liabilities - or whatever - are easily outweighed by the dread of exile from my beloved cultural environment. It’s not that other cultural environments are necessarily inferior (although, in my estimation, some certainly are); it’s more that they are not “mine”. Nor is my preference born of ignorance: having lived abroad for extended periods, travelled quite extensively and been raised by a foreign-born mother I have acquired a degree of perspective sufficient to realise that England is not an exemplary paradigm. It is, however, an impressive work in progress: multi-faceted, difficult to define and changing all the while. Wherein its attraction lies: it presents opportunities for improvement and reasons to be hopeful for its future enhancement. Strictly speaking I am, therefore, a proponent of the process rather than the finished item.

What I’m talking about is cross-cultural fertilisation, without which there is no progress. Some regard the process as a dilution or contamination of values they hold dear - ISIL springs to mind and, on a less tragic scale, those who want the UK to cease to be a part of the European Union - and so it is. But is any culture so precious that it should assume itself to be perfectly and fully formed, above refinement, improvement or humanitarian corrective reform? All things must change. This morning, for example, I had cappuccino in a pub. The traditional pub may have had its day - many have closed - but the principle of a public house remains sociologically important, so adaptation is preferable to disappearance.

Halifax town centre, when I first arrived there last Sunday evening, seemed to present a face I would expect to see in a typically, once-prosperous, northern manufacturing town coping now with reduced circumstances. I walked through a deserted and cheaply-built 1980s shopping precinct which had been hurriedly patched into a segment of land hard up against the earlier, grander, ornamented stone buildings, morose monuments to past civic and commercial pride. The prospect of finding a place to eat in relative style was not promising - Subway, MacDonalds, Burger King - but persistence paid off and I found a Turkish restaurant (immigrants to the rescue!) where I enjoyed a Mediterranean mezze, a glass of acceptable wine and service with a smile. I was in town to catch a concert not, as you might expect, of brass band classics, but of Palestinian songs, held in an historic chapel which is in the process of refurbishment as an arts centre.

The exotic sound of Arab music appeals to me - perhaps my ear is tuned in to it as a result of early exposure - but I also like the fact that I don’t understand the words and am unlikely, therefore, to be distracted from melodic reverie by trite lyrics. The singer was Reem Kelani. I had previously heard her singing with the ex-Israeli jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon on his Exile recording, a pointed demonstration and celebration of their cultural affinities. Listen to her opening the first track and you get some sense of how it is possible to communicate profound anguish regardless of whether you understand the words. The expression of suffering needs no translation.

But the concert that night comprised a more light-hearted collection of traditional songs and she, fresh from a programme of music workshops in schools, enjoined us all to clap and sing along. The Halifax North Women for Palestine in the front row embraced it enthusiastically, I less so. But afterwards I bought dates and a bottle of olive oil from the stall as a token, but practical, gesture of economic and cultural exchange.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

The View From The Barber's Chair

On Wednesday morning I sat in the barber’s chair listening to Radio 1’s tribute to the late George Martin, the Beatles’ producer. Two months previously, in that same chair, it had been David Bowie’s tribute I had heard and, since both men had been significant in my life, it was beginning to feel as if the chair was some kind of vantage point from which to mark the passing of the heroes of my youth. Perhaps, I thought, I could time future haircuts purposely to coincide with the deaths of others of my era and, as I watch the scissored grey hair fall around me, reflect on who goes next: me or Bob Dylan?

I don’t know that the barber himself feels the same way about it: the little he says is confined to nuggets of his personal life - holidays, football matches etc. - that he looks forward to as distractions from his despair at what he sees as the breakdown of society, his stock reaction to which is a disconsolate shake of the head. Actually I was in the mood to empathise with him, having just returned from a couple of days in the Lake District where the snow-capped peaks looked magnificent against the cold but brilliant blue skies. In such surroundings it is natural to feel that all is well with the world and to make believe that that our minority-elected Government is not really intent on destroying society and appropriating all wealth on behalf of an elite few; that the E.U. is not really about to outsource its refugee management problem to a ruthless Turkish dictator; and that Americans are not really serious about electing Donald Trump (a dictator-in-waiting) as President and Commander in Chief.

The distraction of the pretty Lakeland landscape was powerful but short-lived. A reality check came with the realisation that, although it was out-of-season, the car park machines still charged a small fortune, while the toilet facilities which are thereby funded were boarded up on the spurious grounds of being “vulnerable to frost”. Then, over a cup of vile, brown liquid sold as espresso and charged at city prices, the metaphor for life under capitalism appeared all too plain: allow yourself to become captivated and you become a captive customer.

I am getting some historical context on power politics by reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys, the man whose famous diary is fascinating because it records not only the picaresque details of his daily life, but also the political currents in which he swam. Pepys, as was common in 17th Century England, relied on patronage for his living and, to his good fortune, had some useful family connections plus the will and intelligence to exploit them to the full. As a young man he lived through the civil war and saw the execution of King Charles 1st, the rise and unexpected demise of the increasingly dictatorial Oliver Cromwell and the power struggle that ensued. A form of democracy with a small degree of enfranchisement emerged from these events but real power resided with landowners and their agents, the legal system and state-enshrined religion, for centuries afterwards. Now that they have largely waned we should not imagine that egalitarianism has won the day. Multinational corporations are our new masters and, as a logical extension of this reality, Donald Trump and his like will be our new leaders: unless we are very careful.

And, of course, where America leads, Britain nowadays follows. It won’t be Sir Richard Branson or Sir Alan Sugar - they are relatively nice guys - but there will be a corporate contender with a fascist agenda that the by-then impoverished masses will be desperate to elect as a saviour. When this happens I can just see my barber shaking his head in despair. “The Times They Are A-Changin”, I will say.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Calling All Senior Adventureres

When I went shopping last week for a new outfit I was confronted by a certain reality. In the changing cubicle - or cabinet of reflection as it might be called, with its mirrors revealing unfamiliar side and rear views of oneself - I saw that I was actually older than I had imagined. Oh well, I reasoned, youth is wasted on the young anyway; and ageing does have its perquisites. In such scraps we find consolation.

Take, for example, my last cinematic experience. Having been seduced, by an artful trailer and a five-star review, into watching Bone Tomahawk, my eager anticipation was, unfortunately, soured by the event: I found the film nonsensical and trivial. My time, I concluded, would have been better spent watching the snow-flakes drift aimlessly across the grey cityscape through the window of the first-floor bar. I was consoled by the fact that my ticket was at the senior concessionary rate but, even so, we senior citizens don’t have much time left to squander on crap films. On the other hand, a willingness to take a punt can pay off. What counts is getting the balance right. I’ve never been a fan of the horror-film genre but - again on the strength of recommendation - I did catch the Iranian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and this time was delighted by the experience. This film - despite its wacky vampire premise - tells an engrossing, multi-dimensional story and has more to offer than most mainstream fare.

If age equals experience, then it can also foster discernment. But take discernment to the extreme - “I know what I like and I like what I know” - and you could be missing out. There may be things you haven’t experienced and therefore don’t know you like - an argument which came up at the last meeting of the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society when a discussion of the merits of various strains of jazz led us to conclude that we should broaden the scope of our listening. Members were invited to introduce examples of “World Jazz”, so as to take us consciously outside the dominant comfort zone of the USA. The session is yet to come but there is promise of jazz from as far afield as Norway and Ethiopia. I have long advocated this principle of exploration in recommending radio programmes, such as Radio 3’s Late Junction and Jazz FM’s Saturday Night Experience, both of which present music we may not have heard before but wish we had.

Sometimes, of course, the spirit of senior adventure can be thwarted by external factors, such as the rapid advance of technology. I have tried, for instance, to sell the benefits of Spotify or Sonos to several of my contemporaries but been obliged to give up quite soon after noticing a glazing of the eyes which denotes incomprehension. Such failure to keep up can, given the will, be overcome but there are sometimes physical hurdles which may not.  In my case, on the last excursion to the Whitworth Art Gallery, I had a go at a Ben Rivers installation comprising four, 20-minute films shown in separate, temporary cinema spaces. It may well be that the artist has something profound to convey but I am unlikely to discover it because there are no seats, save for the occasional low-level bench with no back support, such as might be suitable for children.

There are times when the spirit is willing but the body is not. Even so I suggest that, in the changing cubicle of one’s mind, it’s as well to keep glancing at those reflections of what we may have become while we weren’t expecting it.