Saturday, 28 January 2017

Glory Days

I had reason to go to Bolton last week. (For those of you who may be geographically challenged in this respect, Bolton is a town about 15 miles northwest of Manchester (the original Manchester, that is, not the one by the sea currently featured in an excellent movie). At the height of the region’s global dominance of cotton production, Bolton would have been described as one of Manchester’s ‘satellite’ manufacturing towns, though I am aware that Boltonians themselves believe – and not without reason – that their municipality could have been top of the premier league of industrialised towns had it not been for the customary appropriation of their wealth by southerners – in this case Mancunians. I suspect that a consequent grudge persists deep in their collective psyche.
 Yet I encountered no rancour in my interactions with the good folk of Bolton: quite the opposite, in fact. When I found myself stranded in a desolate car park without the means to pay-and-display (banknotes and credit cards not accepted, phone-pay beyond my comprehension) two people offered to give me the £1.50 I needed. The first offer I declined, embarrassed. But, seeing no other option, I swallowed my pride and accepted the second one gratefully. Cynicism obliges me to assume that things might have gone differently if my accent had been Mancunian, but my way of speaking is regionally non-specific so I will never know whether I experienced the innate and indiscriminate generosity of Boltonians. In any case, I was then free to walk around and admire the splendid architecture at the centre of a town evidently determined, at the end of the 19th century, to express pride in its industrial success by spending lavishly on civic buildings. They may be fraying around the edges but their symbolism remains powerful.
Later I drove to the outskirts to see for myself a much earlier monument to that industrial legacy, a 16th century manor known as The Hall i’ th’ Wood (try listening to your sat-nav speak that if you want a laugh). The Hall is no longer in the Wood – in fact it sits in a sliver of parkland wedged between a housing estate and the A58 – but it is evocatively ancient despite that. Its real significance, however, is that it was here that Samuel Crompton, around 1775, invented, developed and operated his spinning mule, a machine which kick-started the automation of textile production and caused rioting amongst those who foresaw the consequent demise of their livelihoods. The building and its contents would have disappeared a century ago, subsumed into urban expansion, but for the thoughtfulness and generosity of another Bolton man, Lord Leverhulme.
Born William Lever, he made his fortune by pioneering the second stage of industrialisation, i.e. marketing. He took an every-day commodity, soap, which was at that time retailed by chopping pieces off large blocks, pre-packaged and branded it. His technique was wildly successful (his business lives on in the form of Unilever) and it paved the way for the whole industry of advertising and marketing in which, to this day, Britain is a world leader. Lever, it appears, was a fairly modest man who, despite his wealth, lived locally and remained proud of his home town and its history. He bought the Hall in 1900, renovated it, filled it with museum pieces, and donated the whole lot to the municipality, thereby honouring his predecessor.
But municipal Councils, given that they have more pressing, everyday obligations, are not ideal custodians. The Hall is under-funded and, therefore, open to visitors only a few days per week. Yet, during the two hours I was there, no one came. The Council might regard such apparent lack of interest as a reason to close the place altogether but, on the contrary, I think it should be rummaging in its legacy locker for ways to revive the innovation, confidence and marketing nous it was once famous for.

The Hall i' th' Wood

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Reality Check

I was a little disappointed by the meagre musical score in the film La La Land but, on the other hand, I was delighted by the male protagonist’s passion for jazz and his enthusiastic attempt to promote it to a wider audience – even though, in the real world, it seems doomed to remain a minority interest. But we all have our own personal La La Lands: mine is one in which Brexit Remoaners get to choose individual membership of the EU, becoming, in return for an annual fee, EU citizens, allowed to roam freely across borders to work, play and attend rallies of like-minded internationalists. But it seems that, like jazz, internationalism is a minority interest – and not only among the British. The USA is about to shoot itself in the foot by reverting to insularity in a big way.
It looks as though the new President of the USA was elected by two very different groups of voters, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ and, of these two groups, it is the ‘have-nots’ I fear for. Their version of La La Land is one in which they expect Mr. Trump to bring back low-skilled manufacturing jobs. It won’t happen. His promise is doomed to failure because it can only be achieved by protectionist trade tariffs. This is a flawed strategy and here’s why. Competitors with lower costs will always be able to undercut you. It is better to create alternative, higher-value jobs than to subsidise those which are destined for a lower-wage economy elsewhere. In any case, the robots are coming to take all those jobs soon. In the short term, of course, continuing unemployment or poorly paid alternative jobs will be the fate of those whose industries close because they are no longer viable. But the long term must be taken into account – otherwise administrations will be incessantly patching-up society with costly but futile short-term measures.
And if the workforce cannot appreciate this logic it is the fault of government for providing a poor basic education to those who cannot afford to buy it privately. To some extent this may be deliberate: if the workforce was more enlightened, politicians such as Trump would stand less chance of being elected. They rely on what Isaac Asimov called the cult of ignorance ... nurtured by the false notion that democracy means “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge”.
As for Trump’s rich supporters, what do they know – or care – of the plight of society? As the stupendous wealth generated by capitalism becomes increasingly concentrated into the possession of a tiny proportion of the population, their disconnection from the economic plight of the many seems to become more acute. There is a charitable tradition in the USA, as exemplified by Andrew Carnegie (d. 1919) who advocated that surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community, but there is, apparently, no evidence that Trump is inclined to agree with or to participate in such a philosophy.
Charity is, in any case, only part of the solution. A more equitable distribution of profits is a better way of narrowing the gap. And it’s not a new idea. In 1914 the Ford Motor Company doubled wages at a stroke, citing its belief in social justice and the equitable sharing of present profits and future prospects. The move was denounced by the Wall Street Journal which claimed it was wrong to apply biblical or spiritual principles into a field where they do not belong...(Ford has) committed economic blunders, if not crimes. Ford actually doubled its profit in two years.
One hopes that Trump won’t have things all his own way and that some remnants of a compassionate society will survive his term of office. Or is that simply another version of La La Land?

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Lo-fi Life

Compared with Beirut (where I was this time last week) the traffic in London seems eerily quiet. Whereas Lebanese drivers regard the sounding of horns to be as essential to their progress as the use of indicators is irrelevant, here the opposite applies: horns are rarely sounded and, when they are, it is usually in anger at the tardiness of others to use their indicators. One could become annoyed by the constant honking of Beiruti drivers but I chose not to after I had a Damascene moment in a café, where the oddly eclectic soundtrack included Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman and, just at the moment when the harmonica solo came in, a passing car sounded its horn loudly but precisely on cue and perfectly in pitch with Bob’s opening note. From then on I was all ears, listening for tonal coincidences and accidental harmonies.
Nevertheless, I adjusted straight away to being back in the UK (unlike my PC which, for the first 24 hours, insisted on trying to connect to a wi-fi router in a Cypriot airport) and re-engaged immediately with the preoccupations of the Western world. Some of them, admittedly, do seem ludicrous on re-acquaintance: the news, for example, that geeks have implanted sensors in a hairbrush so that data transmitted to your smartphone will alert you to the possibility that you might be brushing your hair “incorrectly”. Given that humans are biologically equipped with sensors that do the same job, are they now supposed to be redundant in the face of electronic substitutes? That would be gizmology for the sake of it, surely? I was still thinking of this on a visit to the recently re-located Design Museum in Kensington where I gazed nostalgically – and covetously – at a stylishly designed music system of the late 1960s. It might now be considered ludicrously lo-tech but it was – and is – gloriously hi-fi nonetheless.
And I was further convinced that older technology still has its uses when, the next day, my old friend took me up for a spin in his newly-acquired helicopter. Nothing fancy: in fact he describes it, in simple terms, as a vintage-design tractor engine with two seats bolted on top, a perspex canopy enclosing them and a drive-chain hitched to a couple of rotors. Perceived that way it could be a scary proposition to venture into the skies, but it works – and it’s a lot more fun than the series of rides I have recently experienced in Boeings and Airbuses. And when we landed we had a slap-up ‘all-day-breakfast’ at Denham Airfield cafe, personally prepared by the proprietor, Dave, former boxer and leading member of a Hawkwind tribute band, who single-handedly provides an egalitarian service for crew and passengers alike. England at its traditional best.
It was quite cold up in the air though, and I was glad I had put on the winter-weight shirt I had bought a few days previously, though the choosing of it was not straightforward. I had previously read this mysterious line, the ring always believes that the finger lives for it, and was unsure what it really meant. Now I know. Most shirts appear to think the same way: they want your body to fit their conception of what a shirt should be. Now I don’t consider myself to be an unusual shape or size, but it is apparent that the garment industry has its own standards, so finding a good fit is not easy. Perhaps, as a friend of mine once remarked, the older you get the more you have to spend on tailoring.
Old as I am, however, I do expect to experience the next really useful tech advance: driverless cars. I have concluded that, since their horns will never be sounded in anger, they might be programmed to play the first few notes of Just Like a Woman, which I would find very uplifting.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

That Foreign Feeling

By the second day of our stay in Cyprus I had abandoned my cappuccino habit in favour of Greek/Turkish/Cypriot-style coffee – not because it’s a superior brew but because it enhances the feeling of being somewhere foreign. And two weeks later, in Beirut, I was delighted to find that not only do they make coffee the same way but also add a pinch of cardamom, the taste of which intensifies the exoticism still further.
It was only a 25 minute flight from Larnaca and its lavish, EU-funded airport but Beirut really seemed a world away. The snarling complexity of the place is daunting and, with only five days to take it in, one felt the pressure to wring the most out of the visit, starting with the basics – finding places to eat ‘authentic’ Lebanese food. Sniffing them out can be a lengthy and random process but, with the help of a guide book and sensible shoes, it can be narrowed down considerably. The general principle of sticking to low-rent areas also helps. The French, when they were in charge, did their best to civilize the locals by introducing their own cuisine – especially in the posher parts of town: the new colonists – big money interests – added a layer of blandly international hotel chains with their sanitised, themed restaurants; and McDonald’s, Burger-King et al are all there too, jostling for market share.
But Beirut, being a big city with a diverse cultural base and vast disparity in wealth-distribution, allows plenty of scope for all styles of eatery to thrive. It’s a place where mosques stand next door to basilicas, vying with each other in their splendour and magnificence; where sky-scrapers sprout amongst old Ottoman villas; where bullet-riddled ruins blight the cityscape while complex disputes over their ownership remain unresolved; where bills can be settled in USD or LBP (but preferably USD); where Arabic, English and French are spoken; where the two universities – one American Protestant, the other French Roman Catholic – compete for converts; and where holding hands with the opposite sex in public places is disapproved of, while women with fastidiously covered heads smoke hookahs in cafés. It’s no wonder a nasty civil war broke out back in 1976.
One day we had a trip planned – out to the ruins of Baalbeck then on to the Bekaa Valley to visit a famous winery – but bad weather obliged our host to change the itinerary and we went instead to Byblos, taking in a few notable churches on the way. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the history (I didn’t know that the first form of alphabetic writing was discovered on a sarcophagus unearthed at Byblos – or that there is a Roman Catholic branch of the Greek Orthodox Church, for example) but he was also informative regarding the politics of Lebanon. It’s complicated: the various religion-based cultures are further divided by clan and political allegiance. And, intermittently, international pressures are brought to bear in efforts to influence a country which is variously seen as a funnel for middle-eastern wealth, a buffer against Syrian refugees (there is no ferry service from Beirut) and a liberal playground for rich Arabs from the conservative Gulf States. I did my best to make sense of it but I could really do with a diagrammatic learning-aid. That evening, as compensation for the aborted trip to the winery, I savoured a fine bottle of Chateau Musar, put aside thoughts of geopolitics and pondered instead the more agreeable aspect of French-Jesuit missionary activities.
For our last lunch in Beirut we chose the distinctively Lebanese ‘Auntie Salwah’s’, as recommended by the guide but, back in Larnaca that night, I was stricken with a bout of violent vomiting (is vomiting ever not violent?) and the next morning couldn’t face coffee of any kind. Still, I reckon I’ll be OK by the time I get back to safe, familiar cappuccino-land.