Saturday, 30 December 2017

Coffee, Campari and Cash

We were packing up to leave our apartment in Palermo when the sound of a brass band, crisp and tight, wafted in through the shutters with the morning sunbeams. Down in the narrow streets, an itinerant band of around a dozen smartly uniformed musicians were playing seasonal tunes in what I imagined to be a personal sending-off ceremony. But it was a fond imagining and, besides, we didn’t want to leave. A week in Palermo is barely enough to visit all the sites of historical interest, especially when numerous coffee and/or Campari breaks are factored in to the schedule.
I have not yet adopted the Italian way of standing at the bar to knock back espresso, preferring to sit comfortably and savour cappuccino. Nor have I the fondness for sweet pasticceri that seem to be a national obsession though I was persuaded, on one occasion, to try a little specialita, a cake filled with ricotta. I imagined it would taste of cheese but, in fact, it was so heavily laced with sugar that I had to put it aside and order more coffee to cleanse my palate. I have since noticed that ricotta – a versatile substance – is used universally in all manner of recipes. I suspect it even comprises the main component in the stucco that is applied to most building exteriors – which would explain why it is always falling off.
There are many grand historic buildings in Palermo, so many that it is evidently quite a job to utilise and maintain them all: even some of the enormous churches are closed up. As for the abandoned palazzi built by wealthy families in years gone by, private enterprise has stepped into a few, converting them to hotels, while others await their fate. One of them, Palazzo Mori, remains fully furnished and open to the paying public, in the manner of a British National Trust project, though it is apparently under-funded and could do with a little State aid. But, as an Italian acquaintance once told me, “Italy is a poor country, full of wealthy people” and so it falls to the EU to step in and re-distribute some of its massive wealth to the poorer regions on its fringes. (Wales, Cornwall and other deprived parts of the UK, eat your heart out.)
The museums and galleries that we have visited bear the EU plaques that tell where the money for their establishment came from, as well as those other hallmarks of kick-starter funding – lavish and perfectly executed renovations, staffed by disinterested jobsworths for whom there is no on-going revenue to pay for training. One exception to this was the Galleria d’Arte Moderne, where there is a shop, a cafe and – unusually – a card payment facility. Elsewhere, the typical experience is that admission fees have to be paid in cash – whether or not credit card logos are displayed – and, mysteriously, there is never any change. Payment in cash is a practice so alien now to daily life at home, that I am out of the habit. Nevertheless, even I can work out that if cash is common currency, change should be readily available.
We may go back to Palermo, though it won’t be to look at any more grim paintings of religious devotion and suffering: there is no joy that I can detect in that art form. The glittering gold mosaic interiors of the Palatine Chapel and La Matorana, however, are an exception: they tell the same religious story in an exuberant and visually stimulating fashion that transcends the misery. For now, however, we are in Syracuse, having driven through the mountains on the futuristic autostrada-on-stilts (part-funded by the EU). Our host ushered us into our rental apartment and presented us with a welcome gift – a ricotta cake large enough for a family gathering. “Thank you so much,” I said. “We look forward to eating it later.” 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Club Rules? What Club Rules?

The ruling party in Poland – the shamelessly named Freedom and Justice Party – is in the process of curtailing both freedom and justice by politicising the country’s judiciary and taking other steps to ensure it gets re-elected, such as silencing dissenters and attempting to control the country’s electoral commission. Listening to this on the news at breakfast, I was already choking on my toast when a British Conservative politician popped up to defend the Polish government with platitudes such as “important trading partner”, “local democracy” and “taking back control”. He sidestepped the real issue – that yet another national government is taking those first steps along the road to totalitarianism – with such blatant disregard that he must think we are uncomprehending idiots; which, to be fair to him, many of us are. Nevertheless, the plain fact is that nobbling one’s judiciary is wrong. It is also against the rules of the EU, of which Poland is a member, yet its government presses ahead, outraged that the EU should presume to have a say in the matter.
We have spent this last week in Sicily where, because my Italian is so rudimentary, I can detect no discussion of EU politics except by tuning in to BBC Radio 4 via the internet. To be honest, however, I am not presently all-consumed by the issues, since we are here mainly to savour the food, drink and history of the island. In order to cover as much ground as possible, we hired a car, pre-dented so as not to draw attention to ourselves, and fitted with a sat-nav to de-stress the experience of driving through unfamiliar, sprawling towns. Unfortunately, the hire firm did not alert us to the fact that the sat-nav was programmed in Italian and knew only one destination – The Vatican. Maybe it’s a joke they inflict on tourists, but I had to execute a factory re-set to get the device to recognise the rest of Italy. As for getting it to speak English, we chose the voice of an Australian called Ken who has a ‘sense of humour’ and a vocabulary to match, in preference to Janet from the Home Counties, whose po-faced delivery is somehow at odds with the unruly traffic hereabouts.
Arriving in Catania and, later, Palermo, we were relieved to park the car and walk. Historic city-centres such as these were not built for cars, but the locals who live in them have little choice but to squeeze their minis through the streets and thread their teetering motorbikes around the pedestrians, which they do with consummate skill and consideration for each other. Road rage is reserved only for other drivers, in particular those who dare to proceed more slowly than the permitted norm, i.e. ‘full speed ahead’ at all times.
Ancient city centres may be frustrating for drivers, but they are otherwise the saviour of a way of life that does not work elsewhere. The historic centre of Palermo, for example, has four areas of street markets, operating all day, every day and sustained by the population that lives immediately above and around them. Everything they need for everyday life is there and, with competition intense, prices are keen. At least they are for the locals: they can see us coming, so we have learned to buy only from the stalls with clearly marked pricing. And, away from the markets, many of the streets are dedicated to individual trades, as they used to be in medieval London. One afternoon we walked past a line of jewellers, then coffin-makers, then – surprisingly – underpants wholesalers.
Walking the streets during rush hour is less of a pleasure: the fumes from all those ill-maintained, bashed-up vehicles are overpowering. Still, with the traffic jammed-up, there is an opportunity to count the number of drivers wearing seat belts: one in ten is average, despite the fact that, under EU rules, it is mandatory for everybody to belt up. The Poles, it seems, are not the only ones flouting the club rules.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Feeling The Pressure?

Last Sunday I attended two musical concerts themed for Christmas, one of them performed by a big band, the other by a gospel choir with orchestral accompaniment. It was a good way to appreciate the huge repertoire of Christmas tunes – from the intensely sacred to the profoundly secular. It was also, incidentally, a chance to admire the variety of personal adornments worn by many as an expression of their enthusiasm for the festive season. I am talking of Santa hats, elf caps, antlers, Christmas jumpers and the like. These accessories, seen dispassionately, look ridiculous on anyone, but are nonetheless a light-hearted expression of the party atmosphere at this time of year. It strikes me, however, that there is a darker aspect to them – and to the jumpers in particular.
Christmas jumpers make me feel – jumpy. Their designs shout the message “Christmas is fun!” and defy anyone to disagree. It seems to me that those who sport them are throwing down a challenge to join in, get knitwear-competitive or else face being ostracised and condemned as a spoilsport, sour-faced misery-guts. The thing is that, while I can appreciate the ironic humour, the intentional tackiness and/or the naive enthusiasm of some of the designs, I see them all as endorsing the underlying vision of Christmas as a prolonged period of over-indulgence. If I like Christmas at all, it is the version remembered from my youth – a visit to midnight mass and a couple of days of treats and family togetherness – not the present-day orgy of consumerism, encouraged and sustained by the retail and credit industries intent on testing the season of goodwill to the deepest recesses of our pockets. Therefore when I came across a chap this week wearing a seriously anti-Christmas jumper I congratulated him. Admittedly, he was not at much risk of being derided, since he was selling cinema tickets at the local arthouse, a place that teems with liberals and free-thinkers: but his protest was no less noble for that. Besides, it may be that he wore it prominently on the tram, travelling home with the shoppers.
I’ve bought quite a few cinema tickets lately, being eager to keep abreast of the new releases prior to leaving the country for a prolonged and determined spell of Christmas-avoidance. I enjoyed all of them, including two that appeared to have typos in the titles: Happy End, which I thought lacked the gerundive -ing, and Good Time, which seemed to cry out for the plural. Not everyone will agree that these titles are grammatically unexpected; however, they are misleading concerning their respective plots, which are, in fact, so full of mishaps and bad behaviour that both films could be described as “disaster movies” – if only that term had not been appropriated previously by the Hollywood blockbuster industry. Another film – James Franco’s The Disaster Movie – also has a misleading title, since it is not about earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or dystopian outcomes of any sort. In fact, it tells the true story of the making of a movie that was so bad it failed to attract an audience.
Finally, there was Menache, the story of a widower stuck in a low-paying job and doing his best to bring up his adolescent son – a difficult situation. His real predicament, however, is defined by the fact that, being a member of a religious community governed strictly by its traditions, there is pressure on him to conform to the rules: he must either get a new wife or allow his son to be brought up by relatives. The widower wants neither option and argues the case for keeping his son, knowing all along that the system is adamant. His dilemma is serious – the real-life equivalent of, say, accepting that one’s choice is not whether to wear a Christmas jumper, but which design to choose.

Monday, 11 December 2017


This week I went to see an exhibition of work by Percy Wyndham Lewis, a man described by some as a genius on account of his radical writings and paintings. Apparently he did not like the name Percy and tried to shake it off – perhaps its poetic association did not fit with his self-image as the hard-man of contemporary artistic ideology. However, he certainly had no image problem in the physiognomy department: judging by contemporary descriptions and the various images of him, he was a handsome, fierce-looking young man – the sort one could imagine as fearless in the promotion of his principles. I was shocked, therefore, to see him interviewed on film in 1938, at the age of 56, looking jowly and rotten of tooth, sporting gratuitous arty accessories – a Sherlock pipe, a superfluous scarf, a ridiculous hat and ‘statement’ spectacles. Even though the look may have been ‘on-trend’ for artists at that time, the perils of image-management are clear: get it wrong and you can look more pillock than genius.
Wyndham Lewis lived at a time when very few people had a visible public persona to consider, but these days, thanks to free, internet-enabled social media, everybody can have one – considered or otherwise. This phenomenon impinged on me recently when I was recruited to write some short pieces for an online travel guide, Spotted by Locals. Before proceeding, however, the publisher required of me a mug shot and a potted biography – presumably so that would-be readers might judge the credibility of my recommendations in the context of my perceived identity. Fair enough – but, without a professional PR consultant acting on my behalf, I had choices to make. In the end, I submitted a photo of myself in jovial mode and, for the biography, made light of my lifetime of experience and accumulated wisdom. I wanted to ensure I would not be mistaken for a polemicist with a grudge-fuelled agenda. Percy, I’m certain, would have taken me for a wimp, but tourists, after all, just want to know where to get a decent lunch.
There was yet another aspect to the writing gig that I had not considered: the requirement to tweet in order to promote the publication. I knew in theory how the medium works, but had not mastered the practicalities and, unlike Mr. Trump, was nervous of tweeting the wrong thing to the wrong people. Hesitantly, I dusted off my dormant Twitter account and dipped my toe into the shark-infested waters. I was encouraged by an early success when I picked up a tweet from a chap who had a spare ticket to a sold-out gig that I was keen to attend (Jacob Collier – highly recommended). We concluded the deal by phone, as I very soon lost the thread, but I have since become more familiar with the technique – which I do  not  find intuitive – and am working to increase the number of my followers into double digits (@joeholdsworth47, in case you are interested). My relative success with Twitter, however, is only part of the act. Next, I have to refine my presence on Instagram.
Professional marketeers consider these digital self-publicity tools essential to raising the profile of any brand, although I suspect there is a limit to the public’s tolerance of such constant bombardment. Nevertheless, I bet Percy (I know, I can’t resist teasing him) would have loved and made full use of them. He was commercially unfortunate, in that he had few exhibitions, struggled to find eager publishers and had two World Wars interrupt his career. He made very little money from his limited audience, but a marketing campaign which co-ordinated his Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts could have done wonders for the monetisation of his output – though in his later years he would have been well advised to hire a personal stylist.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Intrepid Culture Vulture

Hands up all those who know Modigliani’s first name. I’m sure many of you do, but the point is that the style is so recognisable that he/she no longer has need of a first name. In the commercial world such a degree of recognition would be regarded as successful branding, but in the sphere of creative arts that term is probably too crass to be acceptable – assuming, that is, that the artist’s adoption of a unique style is not a cynical marketing ploy but a result of genuinely artistic exploration. In any case, being in London for a few days, I wanted to take advantage of some of the cultural goodies on offer, and the Modigliani exhibition at Tate Modern was one of them.
Some of his (Amedeo’s) works are so familiar that I assumed I knew what to expect, but I was surprised by something I had not previously noticed: many of his faces have no eyeballs. I became obsessed with this for a while, thinking it odd that an artist could disregard the “windows to the soul” yet still convey soulfulness. Eventually I made the connection between the paintings and his earlier sculptures – stylised stone busts with blank eyeballs – and the fact that artists have never really needed to treat eyeballs – or anything else – realistically in order to express the subtleties of human experience. Perhaps I should scrutinise art more closely in future, I thought, and by the time I got to the Courtauld Gallery to see Chaim (I really did not know his first name) Soutine’s portraits, my attention was focused a little too intently on his treatment of the eyes.
However, my cultural outings included more than painting: I popped into the Wellcome Collection on Euston Road, attracted by a morbid curiosity to see the exhibition of medical paraphernalia and the special display Ayurvedic Man comprising Oriental medicinal tracts, artefacts and illustrations acquired by Mr. Wellcome at the turn of the 20th century. There, I expected merely to be amused by the trappings and mumbo-jumbo of faith-based cures devoid of empirical proof of efficacy and, to some extent, that was my experience. However, as well as the snake oil, there were long-standing traditions of plant-based remedies which, considering modern drugs are similarly derived, have to be convincing. Moreover, there was an 18th century engraving of a patient with a new nose, evidence that Indians had by then mastered reconstructive surgery, having reportedly practised it for hundreds of years. I stood corrected, once more, on my preconceptions – though not convinced that I need to realign or cleanse my chakras.
And so to music – or, rather, to Wilton’s in the East End, the 1850’s Music Hall that has been rescued from oblivion in the nick of time. Any excuse to attend this charming and evocative venue should be grasped so, when encouraged to meet a small party of friends and relatives there, I bought a ticket for an event titled The Voice of the Violin – despite my aversion to the instrument. (I secretly hoped that the unique acoustic of the venue might flatter its sound.) The programme was ambitious: it comprised 18 pieces for solo violin, each of which was played on an instrument contemporary to the era of its composition. In the event, despite the unquestionable virtuosity of the performer, I did find the concert quite testing. The experience was rather like listening to a collection of emblematic guitar solos taken out of the context of the tunes they were intended to enhance. Not only was the prolonged jumble of showy, over-excited pieces too much for my senses, but my hopes for acoustic enhancement went unrealised and I was quietly relieved when it ground to an end. Some prejudices, it seems, are insurmountable. 

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Must'nt Grumble

I watched a lone tourist arrange himself for a photo against the backdrop of London’s Tower Bridge. Selfie-stick raised, he put on his best ‘chuffed-to-be-here’ expression, cocked his thumb in a gesture that said “A-OK” and pressed the button (or pulled the lever or whatever.) When done, his face crumpled into a vacant expression and he wandered off in search of the next photo-op. I imagined he was gathering evidence to convince the folks back home that he was having fun, bagging landmarks in a foreign land. However, from another perspective, there is no such thing as foreign land: it is the traveller only that is foreign. Certainly, when I am abroad, I am aware that the alien is me, not the host population, and I do my best to be respectful of cultural differences.
Such respect, however, is difficult to maintain when I consider the repressive systems of governance prevalent in so many countries. For example, I used to like going to Egypt but now avoid it because I don’t want to endorse or encourage the dictatorial regime by giving them any of my tourist money. The same applies to Turkey, only more so because the tyrant in charge there has actually been elected and that fact diminishes my respect for the people who elected him. For the same reason, I felt uneasy about my recent visit to America: although the President there is not yet a full-blown tyrant, his ardent followers would that he were. Tyrants and demagogues grab power whenever and wherever they can and, today, I have my fingers crossed for Zimbabweans in the hope that their sudden emancipation from Robert Mugabe is not about to be usurped by his understudy, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Of course, I would like to be able to claim that Britain has an ideal system of governance. Unfortunately, however, I could only go so far as to say that on the scale of repression it scores low, though the personal freedoms Britons enjoy mask the fact that ultimate control of power and money is in the hands of a relatively small elite. Moreover, the pending act of self-imposed cultural isolation, economic penury and defensive degradation a.k.a. Brexit will probably reinforce the hold of that elite by restricting opportunities for the rest of us to break out of the mould. The idea of migrating to Canada has lately become an attractive one: if only I were twenty years younger...
Still, as we British like to say, “mustn’t grumble”: things could have been worse – for me and my ilk especially. We grew up with a rudimentary education, sanitary living conditions, comprehensive healthcare, a nourishing – if basic – diet, freedom from conscription into war and, crucially, the right to express opinions without let or hindrance. It is well to remember that we were – and are – the lucky few.
This musing has come about because, yesterday, I visited the exhibition Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution In Visual Culture, which is showing at the Tate Modern. The social revolution that transformed the Russian Empire into the USSR was marked by an upsurge of avant-garde thinking in art, architecture, music and graphic design, the latter, especially, being harnessed by the Communist Party, with spectacular results, for the dissemination of propaganda. Many of the images seen in the exhibition are familiar: so strong was their impact that they have endured way beyond their remit. But while artists of remarkable talent and vision were inspired by the ideals of revolution and communism, the leadership itself became corrupted and used their talents cynically. Stalin even murdered some of them when they were no longer useful to him.
Come to think of it, Putin does not have clean hands either, yet he remains popular with his people. Dictatorship, tyranny and repression are nasty, foreign practices – but they are never far from home.  

Friday, 17 November 2017

Sculpture Blazes a Trail

The train journey back from London, which was pleasant enough already, became more so when the buffet-bar operator announced his wares over the speakers. He had devised a poem and, although it was rudimentary – rhyming “snack” with “track” and “the price is nifty at three pounds fifty” – it was a welcome act of creativity in a situation where none was expected. Moreover, if you agree with Marianne Moore that poetry is “the art of creating imaginary gardens with real toads,” the job was well done: there are toads aplenty in Virgin Trains’ buffet bars, however wonderful poetry may imagine them.
Reality hit us, however, when we arrived home to find that our broadband was broken. The subsequent tedious procedure will be familiar, no doubt, to many of you. In this case it comprised the ISP trying to prove that we had unplugged something until, eventually – after two hours on the phone – it conceded that the router was faulty: which left us with the prospect of a weekend (at least) of cadging free wi-fi around town. “Not the end of the world,” I said, “just a return to life as it was Before Broadband, let’s says BB minus10.” And so it was, in this rediscovered spirit of freedom from the shackles of the PC, that we decided to take a Sunday hike from our front door northwards to Bury, following the river Irwell and the Irwell Sculpture Trail.
Old-fashioned luck was on our side, delivering a cloudless sky and a stiff headwind from the Arctic to keep us alert. We packed a picnic and set off early, the days being short at this time of year. The first point of interest, a pictorial mosaic panel set into the footpath of a tiny park in Salford, was in a state of disintegration, despite having been renovated not long ago. Across the road, however, a bronze representation of a giant sycamore seed stood proud and intact, possibly because of its situation in a small square overlooked by a cluster of smart new town houses. Such are the challenges that face public art installations in the urban environment. Further on, we came to the historic Peel Park, established by public subscription in 1846. It had since fallen into disrepair – and disrepute – but, in 2015, acquired a new lease of life with a £1.6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. This money enabled not only the renovation of the park but also the recruitment of a (single) park-keeper. It did not run, however, to the upkeep of the sculptures, one of which had been tarmacked over, the other missing-presumed-stolen, it having been made of steel.
Further upriver, however, the landscape becomes less populated and the sculptures show fewer signs of violation by vandals. Perhaps it is too far off their beat. In places rough woodlands stand where once there were industrial works or small-holdings; there are extensive playing fields at Kearsley; and, at Clifton, a ‘Country Park’ occupies former coal fields. In fact, there were times during the walk when the sights and sounds of the city conurbation were almost absent and where we were at risk of getting lost in the bush. “Keep the sun on your left shoulder and the wind in your face,” I had to remind myself.
We never made it as far as Bury: the way was winding and took longer than expected, and tiredness began to take precedence over diversions to sculptures that were off the beaten track. When we spotted a station at Radcliffe, we called it a day and hopped aboard a tram amid the throngs of people heading for the Christmas markets in the City Centre. There are 25 more miles of the Trail to explore and, while it may not be an idyll of objets d’art positioned tastefully in landscapes of unaffected natural grace, it does engage the mind and senses with the historic impacts – both destructive and creative – of humans on the landscape. In this respect, there is a kind of poetry to be found in this garden of toads.

Saturday, 11 November 2017


According to the philosopher John Locke, the actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts. I agree and that is how I explain my decision to ignore Halloween and everything to do with it. Since I have no truck with its religio-superstitious origins and don’t like the nonsensical capers that those traditions have morphed into, I will have none of it. I am not, however, totalitarian about my preference. For example, when my partner brought home a small pumpkin and set it on the sideboard I did not object: instead, I admired its colour and form. “We can eat it later,” she said, acknowledging my largesse while magnanimously providing me with a logical reason for its presence in the household. Still, it stood there for a week, challenging me to soften my insistence on empiricism in respect of the supposed existence of the spirit world.
During the run-up to Halloween, I endured the freakishly costumed staff in bars, restaurants and shops with a degree of tolerance and forbearance that Scrooge would never have countenanced. On the night itself, however, I stayed in, shut down the TV and resumed my reading of AtThe Existentialist CafĂ© in the hope that I might better understand the subject. However, too much time had elapsed since I first picked up the book and I had to start again to get a grip of the philosophical definitions. Despite my efforts, I went to bed with only a vague notion that existentialism is a way of life that seems to involve a lot of smoke (preferably Gauloises) and mirrors. By way of distraction, I listened to a podcast that featured a discussion on insomnia, its causes and cures. I didn’t sleep at all that night.
The next morning, stepping over the discarded detritus of cheap ghoul costumes, I made my way across the road to the coffee shop, where I pondered – briefly – my understanding of philosophy. When Locke, for example, spoke of actions, would he have included non-actions, such as my ignoring Halloween? Or is that a separate strand of philosophy which might be described as Head-in-the-Sandism ? I didn’t have time to work this out – I had more existentialist things to be getting on with – so I left it hanging for the time being.
Lunch that day was an intriguing experience and one that Locke may well have approved of. I went to a restaurant called Real Junk Food (“feed bellies not bins”), where the ingredients for the meals are all “intercepted” i.e. donated by the commercial supply chain before they get thrown away as waste. Operating as a not-for-profit organisation, the restaurant is run by people who are determined to do something about food waste. Moreover, while they are at it, they are also tackling social exclusion by opening the doors to everyone who wants to come and eat, whether or not they can afford to. In this restaurant, there is no price list: instead, an envelope is placed on the table with an invitation to pay as much or little as you wish or can afford. In this way, the workers on lunch break can sit down with the unemployed and everyone feels good not only about shunning profligate consumption but also about embracing benign socialism. This is truly a case of people committing their thoughts to action.
Arriving home that evening I was greeted by the savoury aroma of good cooking.
“I made a stew.” said my partner.
“Smells great,” I said. “What is it?”
“Pumpkin and chickpeas with harissa,” she said.
So we ate the ornament. How very existentialist. It tasted great, by the way, and the recipe is available on request to anyone who still has a redundant pumpkin and an appetite for empiricism.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Not All There

I have been fascinated by the documentary series The Vietnam War on BBC, watching open-mouthed as the scale of destruction and the ultimate futility of the war are revealed. Especially jaw-dropping was the revelation of the depths of duplicity plumbed by President Nixon, who committed his own troops and subjected millions of Indo-Chinese to bombing in order to ensure his re-election. While in America last month, I saw a recording of the 1960 Presidential election debate between JFK and Nixon and commented afterwards on how polite, well-spoken and civilised they both seemed compared with those in the last election debates – which goes to show how gullible I am. If the evidence of his duplicity as presented by Vietnam is reliable, Nixon ought to have been too ashamed ever to appear in public again. Compared with him, President Trump seems a harmless bumbler.
To a somewhat lesser degree I bear a burden of shame myself: shame that I took little or no notice of the Vietnam War at the time, even though in 1965, when the Americans first piled in, I was the same age as the youngest US recruits. The lack of interest on my part can be explained, of course: it was someone else’s war in a distant part of the world; the information we received was thin and/or manipulated; my education was too limited to enable me to comprehend the enormity of the events; I was simply preoccupied with looking towards my own future. Any and all of the above might apply, but my conscience remains troubled and is worsened by a failed attempt to exonerate myself. I once told someone that, in October1968, having finally seen the light, I joined the anti-war demonstrators in Grosvenor Square. However, on checking the few scraps of archived material I retain from the period, I see that I was actually in a remote part of the Sudan at the time. I have heard it said that people forget years and remember moments or, as in this case, mis-remember them. My shame may be mitigated only by one small act of solidarity – the sheltering of a US draft-dodger at our London flat between 1972-4 (a fact that is verifiable by third party collaborators), at which point I moved to Manchester.
The Vietnam War was over by the time I had settled into my new home, though I am sure that dreadful wars, of which I took no notice, raged in other parts of the world. Here in Manchester, meanwhile, conflict took a more parochial form. The bulldozing of old housing stock in Moss Side disrupted communities and exacerbated both racial tensions and gang rivalries. My engagement with the process was purely tangential. These were the dark days of alcohol licensing when pubs closed early and the only way to get another drink was to go to clubs, some of which were of dubious legality and located in Moss Side. It was advisable to be on best behaviour at such venues, respectful and even grateful, but the edge of danger lent them some excitement. The eventual relaxation of licensing hours led to their closure, though by that time I had outgrown the use for them. There is news, however, of a sort of resurrection: one of them, The Reno, which was demolished in 1986 and has lain undisturbed since, is now being excavated by a group of former frequenters and archaeologists. They obtained permission to excavate the site, arguing that such places are as important to social history studies as are those of any former era. They have found a few interesting items – a pair of flares, a record sleeve and a block of Red Leb(anese) marijuana. The flares and the record sleeve are definitely not mine.

Comparing Apples

I went recently – and for the first time – to New England, so named by the English Puritans who colonised that part of America in 1620. When they landed, they found the natives friendly – but that was before immigration was tightened: these days, visitors are allowed only after having their hand-prints recorded and their retinas scanned. Still, they let me in and I set about looking for comparisons with the original England. I found few, which is unsurprising considering that almost 400 years that have elapsed since the settlers pitched their tents. There are, however, some indelible traces of the old country: the map appears to have had most of England’s place-names scattered randomly over its surface. It includes a Manchester, as well as a Manchester-by-the-Sea, which, having seen the film, one simply had to visit. The first few days, however, were spent in Boston, where I discovered that Harvard University is in Cambridge.
In part I was reminded of Australia, where the scale of the land is similarly at odds with the imported traditions of its colonists and huge vehicles ply vast distances to connect people with facilities. There are, however, some things the two Englands hold in common, one of which is the apple season. Just before my trip, I was at an old estate in Worcestershire, attracted by the opportunity to try and to buy some of its many rare varieties of apple and, my appetite whetted, I did the same when I reached a farmers’ market in Vermont. The choice was not as extensive, but my perception that American apples are all just shiny, pumped-up globes of blandness was blown away. My prejudices against American food generally were further corrected by experiences such as a wholesome breakfast of kale fried with garlic and queso fresco (whatever that is), topped with poached eggs and accompanied by toasted sourdough. Delicious – but let down, unfortunately, by the pot of tea which, I suspect, all Americans refuse to make properly out of spite following the unpleasantness which took place in Boston Harbour in 1773.
A friend of mine once said that her ideal home would be a flat in Manchester with a sea view. I laughed but, as it turns out, this is possible – in the New World. If she moved there, however, she might be disappointed to find that Manchester-by-the-Sea is merely one of the dormitory suburbs that extend from Boston along the north shore of Massachusetts Bay and not the buzzing metropolis she would like to inhabit. The North Shore feels like a refuge, not only from the city but also from the grosser aspects of Trump’s selfish, rapacious neo-liberalism. Unsurprisingly, Trump supporters are thin on the ground in this wealthy-seeming haven of liberal overspill from Harvard, MIT and the teaching hospitals.
Returning home after my brief foray into America, I was on a train the next day to Plymouth in order to attend a family funeral. I picked up a paper to catch up on the latest in the Brexit debacle but an article concerning a revival of interest in our apple heritage seemed more interesting. Apparently, there is growing enthusiasm amongst amateurs for the resurrection and preservation of our apple varieties, determined as they are to repair the damage done by supermarkets and intensive farming. There are, incredibly, 2,200 varieties of apple already on the National Register and they estimate that a thousand more could be added. Even I flinched at the thought of tasting them all.
I arrived in Plymouth with time to spare and took a walk to the Barbican where, at the Mayflower steps, I thought of those Puritan emigrants. They must have been mightily desperate to cross the ocean in that tiny ship. My ‘long-haul’ flight dwindled to a mere jaunt in comparison.


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Is No Deal Better Than a Bad Deal?

Under the 1667 Treaty of Breda that ended the second Anglo Dutch war, England kept Manhattan, which it had seized from the Netherlands three years earlier, while the Dutch gained the island of Run, which had been the only English outpost in the Indonesian Spice Islands. It seems crazy that the Dutch should have relinquished part-ownership of a continent in order to gain full control of a small island. However, at the time it was seen as a good deal, for it enabled the Dutch to realise their dream of a nutmeg monopoly, since the ten Banda Islands were home to all the world’s nutmeg trees. I don’t know how valuable the nutmeg crop is these days but, since I have had a jar of the spice in my cupboard for at least 20 years, I guess it is not the fastest-moving of commodities. Manhattan, on the other hand, has turned out to be a hot piece of real estate (despite being originally a swamp) and a global financial centre. It seems it is all about location after all.
Of course it is a pity for the Brits that they were unable to hold on to Manhattan long enough to get the real benefit of its subsequent development. They need not have lost it in 1783, since independence was not the preferred option of all colonists. However, their clumsy and unsympathetic governance led to a war they were bound to lose and, ever since, Manhattan and London have been rivals in the real-estate and finance sectors. It was small consolation, I suspect, that the British finally figured out how to cultivate nutmeg trees in Malaysia in the 19th century.
There is no doubt that Britain’s economic strength is a mere shadow of its former self, yet the fact seems to be taking a while to sink in to the consciousness of some natives, notably those who are cushioned by private wealth against the reality of public poverty. Speaking of whom, these last few days have seen central Manchester heavily guarded by police, as the governing Conservative Party holds its annual conference here. The city is a Labour Party stronghold, so the Conservatives’ choice of location is not easily explained: it could be a tactical – if vain – move to win the hearts and minds of Northerners; or it may be that they were offered cheap, off-season room rates; it could even be that Mancunians encouraged them to come here so that they could ridicule them at close-quarters; whatever the reason for their presence, it is tolerated rather than welcomed. Our severely depleted police force has drafted in reinforcements from around the region, making it a good time for burglars and other petty criminals to operate without fear of being nicked.
On Sunday there was a big rally organised by Trades Unions and associated organisations to demonstrate opposition to the Government’s policy of continuing austerity in the provision of public services. The speeches at the rally went down well – as may be expected when preaching to the converted – and everyone set off to march through the streets to the conference centre where they intended to make a great deal of noise so that the Conservatives would feel even more uncomfortable than they probably already did. The idea was a good one, except that the distance between the delegates in the hall and the police perimeter around it was so great as to nullify the effect.
Meanwhile, anti-Brexiteers were also demonstrating nearby in the hope of persuading their few Conservative sympathisers to pressure the Government into changing direction. However, while it attempts to “negotiate” its way out of thousands of laws, treaties and obligations and ignores the real business of government, we remain on course to ‘go Dutch’ and relinquish our part-share in a continent in order to gain full control of a small – and fragmenting – island.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Health and Security

The friendly staff at my medical centre suggested I might like to establish an online account to access my medical records via my own portal. It seemed a good idea, more reliable and comprehensive than my own tatty file of random NHS papers received over the years, so I went ahead. At first, I was alarmed to discover that the service is outsourced to a private company – more evidence of the ‘creeping privatisation’ of our treasured NHS, I thought – but I reconciled this concern with the argument that the NHS should concentrate on providing medical treatment and leave the management of data and websites to specialists in the field. So I now have a health-record portal and – aside from the fact that the accessible information is presented in unintelligible doctor-speak – a small problem: I have acquired another password.
In our household, the responsibility for keeping passwords lies with me, by default. I will not reveal the method employed to store them but let’s just say it may not be 100% hack-proof and that, in a discussion with my partner about this, I was volunteered to research the various apps that purport to keep passwords secret yet available to each of us whenever and wherever required. There are several such apps but their descriptions do not explain quite how they work: that becomes apparent only when you have downloaded them, created an account (with yet another password) and attempted to use them in the way you imagined they might perform. After an hour or so of trial-and-error, my frustration level rose to the point where physical violence threatened to break out and I decided to take a gym-break.
Down at the gym, however, things were no better. Knowing my membership was about to expire, I had taken my credit card with me. “You can renew via your online portal,” said the harassed-looking manager. “Maybe,” I said, “but I established my account long before you were born and the system no longer recognises it.” He hacked grumpily into my account, hit the ‘renew’ button and demanded from me a sum way above what I had budgeted. I protested and, when it turned out that the system was indeed overcharging, he had to complete the transaction by manual over-ride. I did my best not to appear smug.
The next day I received an email from the gym explaining to me how “becoming healthier and more active is easier than ever.”  But I already know that, I thought: eat a balanced diet and walk more. How much easier can it be? I read on and discovered that my simplistic approach is regarded as primitive, unsophisticated and entirely inadequate to keep me at the peak of personal fitness. Apparently, I should login to internet-connected Technogym equipment to access my training programmes, record my body measurements, connect with popular nutritional apps and devices and share my data with my personal trainer. I am already worried about privatisation of the NHS, now I detect a sneaky attempt to monetise the very fitness regime that I employ to avoid requiring its services in the first place. How prescient of H.G. Wells to observe, “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.”
The next time I went to the gym, there was some good news: I no longer have to remember a passcode to get through the turnstile. Instead, they gave me a rubber bracelet with an embedded chip to present for entry. I suspect, however, that it also records data such as when you come and go, how frequently and what you get up to while you are there. How long before all of this pops up on my NHS portal accompanied, no doubt, by ads for nutritional supplements and discounted life insurance?

Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Light Bulb Joke

How many men does it take to change a light bulb? Just one – as long as he is a qualified and experienced electrician. The bulb in question is, in fact, an LED embedded deep in a recessed fitting in my kitchen ceiling. When I had the old light fittings replaced three years ago, I was so enthralled by the reassurance that these new LEDs offered low energy consumption and incredible longevity that I gave no more thought to their eventual replacement than a teenager would give to retirement options. However, this morning, as I balanced on a dining chair with the beam of my head torch flickering weakly on the ceiling and struggled to extract the ‘bulb’ that had been blinking for several days, I had cause to question my lack of foresight and regret my ignorance of advanced lighting technology.
I had been putting off the task until I had resolved another household technical issue, the supposedly essential software upgrade to our mobile phones. (My partner and I have the same model for reasons to do with convenience and domestic harmony.) While I accept that technological advances are necessarily cumulative and that obsolescence is all part of that process, I am also wary of the disruption to one’s routines that can result. In this case, just when I thought I had my digital affairs in order, Microsoft decided to fiddle with my filing system and reorganise it in such a labyrinthine fashion that I had to spend days finding stuff. It’s a bit like having someone ‘tidy’ your study in your absence without your permission and finding, when you return, that they have gone AWOL, leaving you to cope on your own with the anxiety of lost folders and shredded to-do lists.
Of course, I had a cunning plan to minimise the anticipated pain of updating our phones: it was to try it first on mine. There is only one thing worse than getting in a pickle with your phone and that is screwing up your partner’s: the ensuing recriminations bring even more pain. In the end – despite the tensions and the moments of panic – this proved to be a successful strategy, though it left me drained and with some residual tidying-up of stray apps and unfamiliar ring-tones. Then, flushed with success, I came to tackle the light bulb. Perhaps I should have taken a few days for recovery, for my failure here tested my resilience and found it wanting. Defeated, I phoned the electrician and retreated to the tranquillity of the coffee bar in the lobby of a nearby hotel, where I calmed myself over a cappuccino, pondering the while whether tech-anxiety really is related to ageing. Not that I regard myself as old. Only a few evenings previously, while walking in the company of an even older man, a tout approached and offered us free entry tickets to a local lap-dancing club. When I protested our dignified senior status, the young whipper-snapper winked and said “You’re never too old, gents.” We declined his offer, not only because we were on our way to dinner with our partners, the two ladies walking a few yards ahead of us.
Meanwhile, the calm of the hotel lobby had the desired effect and, with no wi-fi connection, I felt cosseted within an old-fashioned environment, safe from the thrusting, youthful demands of technology. I was reading old-style print and came across this quote: There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will have truly defeated age. The author was not a renowned philosopher, but that goddess of the silver screen, Sophia Loren. I’ll bet she also would have been able to tell me how many men it takes to change a light bulb.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Leeds Man

On Radio 4’s humorous programme Have I Got News for You! I once heard a piece in which the participants were challenged to invent a headline for the Great Fire of London in 1666, as reported by their chosen newspaper. One of them came up with “The Yorkshire Post – Leeds Man’s Jacket Badly Singed.”
The lack of empathy for the plight of those outside one’s immediate circle is both the joke and the tragedy. What prompted its recall was the media coverage of the destruction caused by hurricanes in the Americas and the monsoons in the Asian countries of India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The tepidity of my sympathy for the victims of those events made me feel somewhat ashamed. What little empathy I did manage to summon was, in any case, overshadowed by my outrage that the coverage of the Atlantic storms was far more extensive than that of the Asian floods, despite the latter having affected millions more people and much weaker economies. And my outrage was further stoked by the sight of President Trump, Climate-Change-Denier-in-Chief, professing sympathy with his electorate’s problems while, in practical terms, conspiring with industrial leaders to exacerbate them.
However, just as I was lamenting (and making excuses for) my empathy- deficit, I heard a news item that helped me feel a little better about myself. It concerned a child who has total lack of empathy. The ensuing discussion concerned the causes of such a condition, social and/or hereditary, and the extent to which it can be rectified. The hereditary cause is not so common, which is fortunate for all of us as it is difficult, if not impossible, to reverse and sociopaths are not nice people to live with. Extreme cases, such as the one featured, do not care whether their condition is fixed and may, therefore, undergo years of ineffective psychoanalysis, or end up incarcerated as criminals – or both. Social causes are easier to reverse.
Most of us, however, are socialised to the extent that we can agree to get along together most of the time. We have learned to appreciate the concept of humanity and we are, therefore, susceptible to modifying selfish behaviours accordingly. Humanity may be defined as the quality of compassion or consideration for others, but what that encompasses is not straightforward. The boundaries of your humanity depend on which moral code you are signed up for – or are co-opted into. If, for example, your ethical code is defined by adherence to a religious creed that will not countenance homosexuality as normal human behaviour, it is unlikely that you will be compassionate towards homosexuals who are ostracised.
For those whose values are secular, there is the notion of a social contract – an arrangement whereby society attempts to form a consensual agreement on what does and does not constitute behaviour that is compassionate and considerate of all its members. However, since so many diverse and evolving ideas, beliefs and biases have to be added into such an equation, this is necessarily a constant work-in-progress.
The hope of the secularist-humanitarian is that the evolution of the social contract will progress towards eliminating bias, prejudice and injustice in the interest of fostering humane systems of governance. Optimistically, one can point to the spread of these ideals – the United Nations embraces them and has four agencies devoted to delivering humanitarian aid to people affected by both man-made and natural disasters (though it is often hindered by international politics). However, institutional altruism such as this originates in the hearts of humans and, while it is said that charity begins at home, we must all be thankful that it does not always stop there. The Leeds Man story reminded me of that.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

The Pencil Factory

I have never been to the Pencil Museum at Keswick in the Lake District. It has always seemed too limited a concept on which to spend time, though it may well be worthy and I expect it is popular with holidaymakers committed to spending a week or so in a region where, whatever the season, rain can drive everyone indoors. We campervanners, however, have no need to hang around and wait for the sky to clear: we just ‘up-sticks’ and move on. (Although I suppose that phrase needs updating, since it originates from a time when a wanderer’s shelter comprised canvas supported by wooden poles.)
I was in the Lake District this week to rendezvous with an old friend. We don’t see each other often so we both arrived the evening before our planned hike around Langdale Pikes. After supper at the local pub, we settled in to our campsite for the night – as did the rain. The next day’s forecast, fortunately, was “brighter later” so we set off enthusiastically, our conversation ranging from nostalgia, through updates on family and mutual acquaintances, to current affairs and shared cultural interests. The walking became strenuous towards the end, especially where we lost our bearings for a while, but at its conclusion, we congratulated ourselves on having sufficiently youthful limbs to carry us through and arranged to meet again soon for another hike – in Norfolk, perhaps.
Back at camp I was ‘upping-sticks’ when a neighbouring campervanner approached me to ask whether I had a set of Allen keys. “Yes,” I said. “I have a comprehensive tool-box that I have been carrying for about thirty years and I am delighted that, at last, my prudence has paid off.” He was also delighted – on his own behalf – and explained that, like me, he normally has Allen keys to hand but, being from Australia and in a hired vehicle, was without the means to tighten his loose fitting. Men who fix things are called ‘blokes’ as opposed to ‘chaps’ or ‘lads’, neither of which categories seems to signal the inclination or ability to mend broken stuff.
With the rest of the day free, I decided to drive home via one of the visitor attractions – Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage or The World of Beatrix Potter, perhaps. However, being a bit of a bloke, I opted instead for the bobbin mill at Stott Park. It ceased production in 1971, the last of sixty such factories in the region, which sprang up because of the plentiful supply of trees for coppicing and water for powering machinery. Their ready customer base was the cotton industry of nearby Lancashire. The mill ended its days powered by electric motors, though they were – and still are – attached to the original belt and pulley system that drives all the equipment, so our tour guide was able to demonstrate bobbin-making.
From a mechanical/industrial-ingenuity perspective, the whole set-up, which began in 1835, is admirable and fascinating, but our guide was careful to remind us, from behind a retro-fitted safety-guard, of the human cost of these early industrial endeavours. Boys had to serve a seven-year apprenticeship just to qualify for a lifetime working twelve hours a day, five and a half days a week at a single, repetitive and inherently dangerous task, for which they received only subsistence wages. Things may have changed (for some of us) but vestiges of our industrial past are embedded in our language, reminding us how hard it was. For example, the mill workers were obliged to buy their own hand tools so that they would be sure to look after them. If they left the job having worked well they were given a sack to carry them away in, but if they left under a cloud of disapprobation their tools were thrown in the fire. Better to be sacked than fired. Either way, you could always try your luck at the pencil factory. They were tough times for workers – and they still are: the gig economy, with its self-employment and zero-hours contracts is proof that exploitation never went away – it just changed its image.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

History? A Walk In The Park

Learning British history is as simple as a walk in the park – or anywhere else you may happen to stretch your legs. Next week, for example, I shall be hiking in the Lake District National Park and, while admiring the picture-postcard landscape, will remind myself (and my hapless companion) that most of it is not quite as nature intended, having been modified by mankind’s economic activities. The flanks of the hills that once were clothed in trees are naked now, cleared and stripped of new growth by the sheep that are the mainstay of farming in the area. Moreover, I learned from a local barmaid (in the days before they all came from the EU) that the common place-name ending “thwaite” is Old Norse for “clearing in the woods”: deforestation has been going on for a long time. It is pointless, however, to bemoan the fact that the hills are treeless – sheep farming will persist for as long as it is economically viable. It would be more useful to recognise such phenomena as the imprints of history on our countryside.
But in our built landscapes it is, perhaps, easier to decode the stories of history. Stroll through enough suburbs and, if you are interested, you will begin to identify when they were built, which will soon prompt the questions ‘why?’ and ‘how?’. Make your way through the crowds on the High Street, where familiar liveries and logos compete to draw your attention and distract you from looking up at the architecture, and pause instead to ponder why the street layout is the way it is. The most obvious markers, however, are the monuments and statues peppered around public spaces. They may be so familiar that we become blasĂ© and disinclined to stop and read their inscriptions, nevertheless their presence, in itself, is as much a part of our identity as the houses in which we live. The recent call for the removal of Lord Nelson’s statue from Trafalgar Square is, therefore, alarming, though it does raise the question whether we think consciously about our history or clothe ourselves in it uncritically. Nelson was a significant national figure and, like most of his contemporaries, did not embrace the moral or ethical standards that are widespread today. But rather than remove him from his column and thereby erode public awareness of our history, we would do better to place a statue of Napoleon facing him to more completely illustrate the story of Trafalgar.
Away from the grandeur of Central London, along the north bank of the Thames Estuary, I was walking with friends who pointed out the features of its layered history that make up in interest what the area lacks in visual appeal. There are ancient and barely visible remains, like the row of wooden stumps that was a medieval jetty. There is the star-shaped stone fort at Tilbury, lovingly preserved by English Heritage. (It is currently closed while being used as a set for Mike Leigh’s film of the Peterloo Massacre, a crucial event in the fight for universal suffrage, yet not well known – outside of Manchester, that is). There is industrial archaeology-in-the-making just nearby, where a redundant power station awaits its uncertain fate. As the land gets lower, we walk past a jetty where earth spoil from excavations in and around London is deposited to create arable fields which, one day in the future, passers-by will assume were always there.
We end up at East Tilbury, a small town that once was home to the headquarters of the worldwide Bata shoe-making empire. The elegant, grade II listed factories are now empty but intact and, at their entrance, stands a bronze statue of Thomas Bata himself. He once made a fortune from supplying boots for Mussolini’s army, but one hopes that the remote location will protect his effigy from a call for its removal on that account.



Saturday, 26 August 2017

Multilingual Aspirations

Lately, a persistent pain in my shoulder has been waking me in the early hours and the only way to relieve it has been to get out of bed. The pain disappears, inexplicably, but at the cost of sleep deprivation. Later in the day I find myself inclined to catch a nap, like the chap in the same row as me at the cinema who dozed off during the film Final Portrait. Of course, his slumber may have been induced by the lugubrious pace of the plot (an account of Giacometti’s method and approach to painting a portrait from life) but I envied him his repose while making an effort myself to stay awake for the sake of my partner. For the record, the film has its merits, chief among them being a depiction of the artistic life in early sixties Paris and the romantic mix of bohemian behaviour and sophisticated manners for which it was renowned.
Last week I tackled my shoulder pain by experimenting with my pillow arrangement, putting an extra one in place. I have since had seven consecutive pain-free nights (though I cannot explain why the previous pillow setup of at least three years’ standing failed me so suddenly). Feeling refreshed, I ventured to the cinema once more. This time it was to see a 1962 French production, Le Doulos. Again, the setting was Paris in the early sixties – though this time in gritty, subtitled monochrome – and the cops-and-robbers plot was pacey and complex, all of which would have been enough to keep drowsiness at bay, even if I had slept badly.
I come from a generation of English schoolchildren obliged to learn French so, in theory, I can speak and understand it (to a limited degree). Lack of practice, however, means that any hopes I might have of following film dialogue without recourse to the subtitles is optimistic. Nevertheless, French remains my automatic default language when obliged to mouth a foreign phrase – no matter which country I happen to be in. It all goes back to colonial times, when you could get by with either English or French – preferably English, bearing in mind P.G. Wodehouse’s description “Into the face of the young man...there crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French”.
As it happens, it is the Italian language that is currently causing me angst. I am anticipating a trip to Sicily later this year and am keen to capitalise on the evening classes I took 25 years ago. I hope to revive my linguistic capability to a level that demonstrates my European credentials and distances me from the ghastly brigades of Brexiteers. It shouldn’t be too difficult: the past decades have seen a proliferation of all things Italian in the UK. There is now a presence on every high street of restaurants, pizza places, coffee shops and delis all sporting the colours and vocabulary of Italy. Fewer Brits than ever now confuse “espresso” with “expresso” and I even heard someone recently order a bottle of Verdicchio without hesitating over the awkward grouping of consonants.
So, I dug out an old phrasebook to brush up. I’m sure the essentials of the language are still in place since it was published but I have noticed that it contains phrases that were once considered essential but have since fallen into redundancy. Many of these are included in the section headed Post Office. Nowadays, people are far more likely to be asking for a wi-fi passcode than a stamp. I would do better, it seems, to ditch the phrase book and download a phone app which could translate almost anything – including sentences like “Could I have an extra pillow, please?”  

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Mind How You Go

LSD is back in fashion, but with a difference. Whereas we Boomers were accustomed to take it in unmeasured doses and at irregular intervals, the Millennials have adopted a systematic approach: in Silicone Valley, at least, people are ‘micro- dosing’ themselves regularly, convinced that they reap mind-enhancing benefits without the hallucinations more usually associated with it. They are using LSD to sharpen their creative and business skills, disdaining the practices of 1960’s ‘trippers’, whose random experimentation with the potentially mind-altering drug they regard as foolish and reckless. Meanwhile, those of us Boomers who survived the experience are now free to spend our dog days (with one eye on the Millennials’ progress) savouring such enhancements of the mind as we may have accumulated. In my case, this translates into spending more time in galleries, museums and gigs.
Last week’s incessant rain had put the dampers on a plan to spend the day in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park so, instead, I opted for The Hepworth gallery in nearby Wakefield to see an exhibition of Howard Hodgkin’s Indian Paintings, inspired by his time in Mumbai. I would happily take home any one of these paintings, so that their exuberant, colourful expression would cheer and inspire me on even the dullest day. Alas, the cost is beyond my means and, although prints are available, I have a limited amount of wall space and don’t spend that much time staring at it, so I left the gallery empty-handed but elated, passing as I did so, a group of boisterous Boomers on their way in – not unusual on a Tuesday, except that these were all dressed in traditional Indian garb. I hoped they were not expecting to see figurative paintings of their ancestral city.
A few days later I was at The Whitworth Gallery, which I enjoy because it displays both art and design. The debate over what differentiates one from the other may have been resolved long ago and by higher authorities than me, however, seeing the two disciplines mixed together certainly encourages comparison, questioning and probing into the blurry boundary. I acknowledge no hierarchy of relative importance: art may be deemed inspiring, though it serves no practical use; design might be equally uplifting insofar as it introduces aesthetics into everyday experiences. Whatever, body and mind must both be served in the interest of overall good health.
Raquib Shaw’s exhibition at The Whitworth includes artefacts from various collections displayed along with his own extraordinarily complex and colourful creations, demonstrating the cross-fertilisation of traditions, techniques and materials over time, cultures and continents. It seems appropriate that, for this show, Shaw was commissioned to create a design for wallpaper – given that The Whitworth is home to many historically important examples – and it is his wallpaper that covers the walls of the gallery. From a distance, it looks like a richly coloured pattern comprising lush, exotic foliage. Get close, however, and you see myriad mythical figures and weird faces woven into the forms. It makes a fascinating backdrop for his strange paintings, all of which glow with colour and shine with glitter.

In an adjoining gallery, there is a completely contrasting show – a display of furnishing fabrics, designed for Heals in the late sixties, by Barbara Brown. The geometric forms and simplified colour palettes she employed typify the ‘pop-art’ of the period. The patterns that she – and others like her – created, formed a literal backdrop to much of my life back then, signalling a bright, modern future stripped of fussy, overblown decoration and obscurely classical references.

Of course, I have no idea if either of them used LSD – but, if they had, I would guess that Boomer Brown discovered micro-dosing way ahead of its time, while Millennial Shaw must have gone retro and dropped a random tab.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Your History: Pay Per View

Back in the early 1700s, the fabulously wealthy Delaval family commissioned starchitect of the day, Sir John Vanbrugh, to design and build them a grand residence at Seaton on the Northumberland coast. The project went well and the outcome was considered to be Sir John’s finest work. The family entertained there lavishly – until 1822 when, while they were spending Christmas in London, a fierce fire severely damaged the main hall. Word had been sent to the servants to warm the house prior to the family’s return and it may be that the servants had been over-zealous, or careless, or that one of them harboured a grudge and was out for revenge. The accepted story is that the fire was spread by the presence of crows in the chimneys, but I prefer the grudge theory: after all, the Delaval fortune came from the land that was given them by William the Conqueror, who had taken it by force. Inheritance of land is not a valid moral justification for ownership.
I had previously driven eastwards, following Hadrian’s Wall towards Newcastle, on the way noting the evidence of thousands of years of territorial disputes that permeates not only the landscape but also the place-names, such as Rudchester, where I turned north, to the walled town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. After the Romans departed, it straddled the contested border between Scotland and England, changing hands 14 times. Now, with its picturesque ancient buildings, remnants of its fortifications and a significant position at the mouth of the salmon-rich river, it remains a desirable place to live and I could not help peering into estate agents’ windows to indulge in some fantasy house-hunting – so much more enjoyable than the real thing.
Ruined castles and their ecclesiastical equivalent, abbeys, abound in NE England. If you are interested in getting a close look at them, however, there is a price to be paid, since they are often in the custody of an outfit called English Heritage, a charity devised to privatise and outsource conservation of the nation’s historically significant piles of stone. On this trip, I bit the bullet and subscribed to an annual membership, since the price of individual admissions would have been onerous. They gave me a map of England showing all their sites, so I can be sure to get value for money by calling in at each one as I pass. This, however, is challenging, since I am doing the same with my National Trust membership. At Lindisfarne, at least, there is an opportunity to bag two in one - the abbey on one membership and the castle on the other – or there would be if the castle were not currently closed for refurbishment. So, I used the time saved to walk around the bleak island and try to imagine the hardship endured by Cuthbert who, back in the 13th century, chose this sparsely populated, windswept spit of land as the launch pad for his mission to spread Christianity. Further down the coast, past the still-inhabited Bamburgh castle and the evocative ruins of Dunstanborough castle, the remains of another Cuthbert-inspired abbey, Whitley, perch high on a promontory at Tynemouth. Once isolated, it is nowadays at the edge of a conurbation, overlooking a cove that is home to Riley’s Fish Shack, where local seafood is prepared with respect and served with cool, contemporary panache.
 But in the rich hinterland of Northumbria lurks another grand house built on the proceeds of land inherited from the Normans – Wallington. However, its last owner, Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan, declared himself a socialist and, believing that private ownership of land was inconsistent with socialist principles, gave the estate back to the people (via the National Trust) – albeit after he had lived out his life there. Despite his example, alas, Norman socialists remain thin on the ground.

Friday, 4 August 2017

In Search of What?

Many of us in the later stages of life, unencumbered by ill-health, untethered from regular employment and unhindered by family obligations, find ourselves able to travel a good deal more than previously – just for the fun of it, the adventure of it, the heady illusion of freedom it promises. In a way this represents a return to one’s youth, when the yearning to explore the world beyond trumped the prospect of settling down prematurely to a predictable life-plan. Unlike in youth, however, we have gained useful experience: we know to avoid dull destinations, dangerous situations and tiresome companions. As for whether or not we have the means to travel first-class, that should not impinge on our determination to embark: there is a case to be made that cosseting dulls the edge of an experience. (On the other hand, however, there are times when a glass of champagne and a comfortable seat epitomise the pleasure of getting from A to B.) Currently, my mode of travel is by campervan.
So what is it about travel that appeals? After all, for many it is a miserable experience, something to be endured as a means to an end: ask anyone who passes through an airport during peak holiday season, or who has no choice but to drive when the roads are busiest. How would they regard the Taoist saying “the journey is the reward” or Buddah’s pronouncement “it is better to travel than to arrive” or R.L. Stevenson’s “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”? Leaving aside the metaphorical allusions, they would probably disagree and make, instead, a strong case for the primacy of destination over journey. The secret of happy campervanning, however, is the successful combination of the two; and the means required to accomplish this are a generous time-span, a flexible schedule and a surfeit of appealing places to go – all of which, I am happy to say, are available to me and those in similar circumstances.
Summertime is campervanning time. The days are long and there is maximum chance of catching fair weather for healthy outdoor pursuits such as hiking, biking and al fresco wining and dining. Intersperse these activities with bouts of exploration of the local architecture, history, customs and curiosities and there is barely time to keep up with current affairs in what quickly becomes “the outside world.” In fact, I find it necessary to return to base camp (home) periodically for the purpose of maintaining some of life’s essentials – such as watching films, attending gigs, rendezvousing with friends and attending medical appointments. On a brief return last week I saw four films: David Lynch: The Art Life, The Death of Louis XIV, Dunkirk and The Beguiled (the last of these being the least beguiling); on another flying visit I managed to catch seven gigs at the Manchester Jazz Festival. The next planned return (I am currently on the Northumbrian coast) will involve a rendezvous or two but, predictably, my (non-critical) hospital appointment has been cancelled without explanation.
Meanwhile the travel adventure continues and includes a pet project – ad hoc research into the extent to which coffee-shop chains have infiltrated small towns, making available decent coffee and croissants where, in years gone by, neither was to be had. However, I notice a growing number of local entrepreneurs have latched on to the phenomenon of townies wanting espresso and begun to play Costa and Nero at their own game – often with superior product and more personal service. Independents fight back!
But the last word on the art of successful campervanning goes to Rousseau, who wrote (perhaps a propos something entirely different) “the happiest is the person who suffers least pain, the most miserable who enjoys the least pleasure” and it is in that spirit that I navigate the byways of Britain.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Life on the Edge

There’s remote and there’s more remote: right now we’re merely remote, situated, as we are, in a camping field on a cliff-top in southwest Wales. At least, it feels remote, looking out at a sea with no boats and all around nothing but the odd farmhouse or holiday cottage. The nearest shop is a 20 minute walk away and, although I know the same can be said of many a suburb, it’s the lack of people and motors that makes the difference. The sense of remoteness, however, is deceptive: within an hour we could drive to a sizeable town, with a high street full of Italian-themed coffee shops occupying former premium retail premises.
“More remote” describes the place we were at last week: Fionnaphort, on the western-most tip of the Isle of Mull, is essentially a transit point for the busloads of tourists who turn up daily for the ten-minute ferry ride west to the Isle of Iona. However, it does have a shop and, within it, a Post Office, where my partner selected a postcard and asked for a stamp. Without any hint of humour, the man took the money for the postcard and asked her to step slightly to the left where the Post Office counter is located so that the stamp could be sold under a separate transaction. Amused by this, we then attempted to book a boat trip to the uninhabited Isle of Staffa. There was no booking office, simply a hoarding bearing the times, prices and a phone number. However, there is no phone signal and the public phone is out of order. “Och, jest tern up,” advised the young girl in the seafood kiosk but when we did, the boat was full. “It’s because the weather’s nice,” said the captain/bosun/purser/guide, “Do you want to book for tomorrow?” We did. He scribbled my name on the back of a scrap of paper and sailed off. One soon comes to accept that informality and idiosyncrasy are part of the charm of life on the edge.
The weather next day was even fairer, so we determined to be at the quay early and, while we were waiting, try the seafood at the kiosk. There was, unfortunately, no dressed crab – my favourite – but the girl assured us that her dad was out in the boat and would soon arrive with fresh supplies. So I made do with langoustines and we sat outside watching the tourists come and go from Iona, while a young piper busked alongside. I took the time to contemplate the attraction of this place to its visitors, many of whom are foreigners: North Americans of Scottish extraction, drawn to their ancestral lands, like salmon returning to their spawning grounds; land-locked Europeans, savouring the novelty of rugged coastlines at the very edge of their continent; and British townies like us, getting a fix of nature, at little cost and in relative safety and comfort. As for the locals, those who choose to call the place home, I can only speculate why as, to my shame, I have not transcended the visitor experience to engage with them on a personal level.
There is, incongruously, a ‘fine-dining’ restaurant, Ninth Wave in a house outside Fionnaphort, where we and a party of friends had dinner one evening. It remains a mystery to me how it sustains a customer base, being in such a remote spot (our friends had to drive 90 minutes, each way), but the cooking is exquisite, in a finicky-foodie sort of way. More to our liking, however, was The Crofters’ Kitchen, two miles up the road to nowhere, where a group of what used to be called hippies has opened a shop and cafe offering home-grown produce, baked goods and bought-in wholefoods. These two ventures are admirable additions to run-of-the-mill tourist catering but I do fret about how they will fare in the winter, when life on the edge must get quite bleak. I would like to be there to find out and, in the process, make deeper contact with the locals.