Friday, 31 March 2017


The suburb of Heaton Moor used to boast a couple of rival, politically associated clubs but, over the course of the last few years, the hatchet has been buried – perhaps reflecting a general shift towards neo-liberal consensus – and amalgamation has left just one club serving as a non-aligned social venue for the neighbourhood. It was there, last week, that members of the HMJAS gathered to hear Loose Change play a very competent set of jazz-funk tunes. Unfortunately, despite the very reasonable admission price of £3 (supper dish of Lancashire hot-pot included) it turned out to be another of those sparsely attended Wednesday evening gigs which seem to abound in Stockport. Whether this is due to inadequate marketing or fundamental lack of demand, I can’t be sure. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the evening, not least because fellow jazzer and Wonderman reader Dave told me that his mate, who is on the board of the National Portrait Gallery, has promised to install mirrors on the wall in the restaurant there. Those of you who recall my criticism a couple of weeks ago will recognise this as a triumph of blog-lobbying.
My euphoria continued, buoyed by the advent of springtime, and one sunny morning I ventured out to inspect the potted bamboo. For the past two years I have been defending it against aphids – and they are back again! My neighbour – who is Brazilian – came out to tend his plants and we struck up conversation about the Brazilian film Aquarius which I had just seen. He enthused about the starring actor – whose name is too Portuguese to recall – and vowed to go see it next day. On the subject of aphid control, however, he showed less interest, remarking only “there are some very convincing plastic bamboos you can get.” He has a point. Life is, indeed, short.
I didn’t let the return of the aphids spoil my week: too many other events had been clamouring for that distinction. When I collected the campervan from the upholsterers in deepest Lancashire I was delighted with the job they had done. Only later did I discover that, in removing the seats, they had disrupted some electrical connections and failed to restore them. I took the van to my local mechanic who sorted it out quickly but at considerable cost. Afterwards I found some unidentifiable plastic parts lying loose in the glove box. I suppose I will have to go back to the mechanic to enquire about them. It brings to mind the old Flanders & Swann classic song The Gasman Cometh, which employs humour to de-fuse frustration.
It has not been so easy, however, to dispel the gloom that has descended since Our Glorious Leader dispatched the ‘Dear John’ (or ‘Article 50’) letter to the European Union. I know that people argue over whether Brexit will help or hinder international trade, but that point is irrelevant in the long term since agreements can always be negotiated. Which leaves Brexit-lovers with their beloved argument for ‘sovereignty’, a concept which I value less than they: it makes me think only of drawbridges.
Still, springtime fosters regeneration, not only in nature but also in the hearts and minds of men. My partner, having noticed some crumpling in my demeanour, reserved time to conduct for me a session of re-aligning my life-focus. During such an exercise one is required to face up to big questions, such as: Why are we here? Where are we going? How will we get there? Shall we be taking sandwiches?  The session worked its magic. Sitting there, on the sunny terrace of a buzzing urban cafe, having drawn a diagram of my life on A3 paper with multi-coloured pens while sipping good coffee, anything seemed achievable: Brexiters might falter in the face of blog-lobbying; even aphids might be defeated once and for ever.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Who's In Charge?

I was walking through Piccadilly Gardens, quietly contemplating an article I had just read about aerial surveillance, when a violent scuffle erupted on the terrace of the cafe a few yards away. Tables and chairs went clattering around the concrete and a young man fled the scene while three others were wrestled to the ground by plain-clothes policemen shouting their statutory warnings as they struggled to cuff and search their prey. It was an unexpected bit of excitement for a Wednesday morning but reassuring on three counts: first that the authorities are attempting to put a stop to drug trafficking in the Gardens; second that the police gave a running commentary on what was happening; and third, that actual police officers are doing the work, not drones.
Drones? Well, yes. We already have surveillance cameras mounted on poles and helicopters equipped with thermal imaging devices; drones will be next, probably fitted with tasers. They are cheaper than helicopters and admirably suited to MOOTW – Military Operations Other Than War. James Madison, the 4th US President, was remarkably prescient when he said:”The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defence against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers from abroad.” His insight, in itself, is disturbing but what makes matters worse is that drone operators are recruited, so it is rumoured, from the ranks of life-long video-gamers, many of whom are so inured to the inhumane consequences of their targeting that a group of artists has been moved to set up a project called #NotABugSplat, comprising a huge image of a young girl laid on the ground in Pakistan near the epicentre of US drone strikes. Her eyes look straight up at the cameras in the hope of influencing the operators’ perception of the consequences of their actions. Alas, the locals have since torn up the image and used the sheeting as building material, deeming that a more effective use for the project.
The proliferation of drones cannot be stopped – the technology is too easily accessible – but there may be a simple way to limit the potential threats they pose to life and liberty: we could take the toys away from the boys. Technology has always been the preserve of men, but it may be that women, given the chance, could deploy it in less destructive ways. It’s worth recalling here the case of Charles Babbage, inventor of the computing engine, and Ada Lovelace, the visionary mathematician who recognised its potential. When, in 1840, Lovelace saw a demonstration of Babbage’s device she went away and wrote what was the very first computer programme. Spurred on by Ada’s vision, Charles drew up plans for a more advanced version of the engine. But he was ineffective at raising the necessary finance and, though Ada pleaded with him to let her manage the project to fruition, he could not bear to hand over the reins. In the end, Lovelace’s genius foundered on the rocks of male chauvinism. 
But there are signs of change, at last. We now have females in the key positions of Prime Minister, Home Secretary, Head of the Metropolitan Police, Head of London’s Fire Brigade. Add to these achievements the fact that female soldiers will soon be joining their male counterparts in front-line combat operations and all seems set for a shift in the balance of power in favour of women. Whether or not they will do things differently remains a moot point but the real question is whether they will be allowed to, for real power lies not with figureheads but with those who control the nation’s capital and resources. The likely outcome is that we may, for some time to come, just have to make do with WINCE – Women In Nominal Charge of Everything. It’s a start, at least.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Frankenstein And The Squeaky Shoes

There is a rather good restaurant upstairs at the National Portrait Gallery. It has sophisticated food, slick service and a reasonable wine list – but the main attraction has to be its location, high above Trafalgar Square, where diners have a panoramic view of London to the south. At least, they do if they are not facing the back wall, as I was when I had lunch there last week. The restaurant has been going for many years and, during all that time, there must have been thousands of occasions when waiters have noticed the disappointment on customers’ faces as they ushered them to seats with their backs to the window. Did it never occur to the management that they could easily, and cheaply, stick mirrors onto that wall? In any case, view or no view, it is long-established practice to install mirrors in restaurants so that wall-facing diners can observe their fellows. Dining out is, after all, a form of social interaction. I pointed all this out to my companions without, I hope, labouring the point. Nevertheless, it niggled me throughout the lunch that so obvious an oversight – and one so easily remedied – should remain uncorrected.
There is a question lurking at the back of this observation: am I being too particular? Do I emphasise the negative at the expense of appreciating the positive and, if so, is this an inclination in danger of becoming an obsession? I would like to think not. After all, just yesterday, the lady behind the counter in the Spar shop complimented me on my cheery demeanour and polite consideration for her position. Mind you, the transaction had gone well: the item I wanted was in stock, there was no queue and my contactless card worked first time. Satisfaction produces good vibes. Things might have gone very differently, as indeed they did on another occasion when I was so brusque to a waiter in a cafe that my partner insisted I present my apologies, as well as a generous tip, when it came time to pay. (The waiter had tried to persuade me to try an exotic blend of tea instead of the cappuccino I wanted and was keen to get to grips with: otherwise, everything was perfect.)
I have seen two films this week, Logan and Elle, both of which have been highly praised by critics and both of which, in my experience, were disappointingly flawed. In the case of Logan, even though I’m not a particular fan of the Marvel Comics phenomenon, the fantasy sustained my interest pretty well – until the end, that is, when a huge dollop of Hollywood schmaltz spoilt the whole thing and left me wishing I hadn’t bothered. Elle, on the other hand, is so not Hollywood that the parameters of its appeal are quite different and Isabel Huppert’s performance, in itself, is a good enough reason to buy a ticket. Yet there are some unconvincing plotlines which, although temporarily sustained by the drama, do ultimately unravel, thereby spoiling the overall experience – for me, at least.
I am conscious that niggles such as these must be kept in proportion so as not to overshadow one’s enjoyment and, to this end, I try always to keep an open mind, as I did last week when we went with friends to Wilton’s Music Hall for dinner and a performance of Frankenstein. Everything was set for a good night out: great company, lovely food, an appropriately historic venue and an innovative show. But even the most positive among us could not ignore the fact that the actor playing Frankenstein had a voice that was too highly-pitched for the part and that the assistant-cum-props-person who followed him around the set was wearing a pair of distractingly squeaky shoes. And those, I’m afraid, are my abiding memories of the show.

Friday, 10 March 2017


Right now it seems that the only thing protecting the liberty of American citizens from a would-be dictator is their written constitution: maybe we should get one of those, just in case. Mrs. May – our leader by default, not choice, remember – might come across as having a fair and reasonable approach to civic governance but this has yet to be tested, especially against the wave of xenophobia and associated crop of ‘strong leaders’ sweeping through nation states around the globe. But dictatorship couldn’t happen here, could it? We have our famous ‘checks and balances’ – the Monarchy, the House of Lords, independent judiciary and police services and, last but not least, universal suffrage. Yet, despite this lauded system called democracy, what we actually have right now is a kakistocracy – rule by the worst people. I see no grounds for complacency.
How did we get into this situation? One reason could be that anyone is entitled to stand for election (a good thing) but without training or qualification for the job (a bad thing). Would it not be reasonable to expect that – as in most other professions – candidates should learn the basics before applying for the position? In the case of would-be politicians such basics should include elements of sociology, history, economics and ethics so that they might at least have some idea of which pitfalls to avoid, thus eliminating the two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach to policy-making. A recent example of politicians’ ineptitude is the case of those who thought it was a good idea to leave the EU. Playing down the socio-economic benefits in favour of an argument for sovereignty, they have now lumbered us with years of wasting our time and money on complex, protracted negotiations to leave the club, only to have to re-join it on some form of trading terms to save our economic bacon.
Here’s an example. When Britain joined the EU there was a resurgence of investment into its (by then, foreign-owned) car manufacturing industry. Unfettered cross-border access enabled the development of a complex web of transferable materials and skills: sales boomed in the absence of tariff barriers. Brexit will put paid to all that and the industry will wither. In an attempt to avert this blow to the economy the Government has already promised to protect Nissan against future tariffs and will probably be pressured into doing the same for other companies. A few days ago General Motors sold its European operations to the French car-maker PSA and the workers at GM’s UK plants now fear they will lose their jobs. They probably will. Ironically, VW recently announced that it is adopting English as its universal corporate language – Honda has already done so and, if PSA follow suit, we could at least console ourselves with the thought that, although cars may no longer carry a ‘Made in England’ stamp, they will at least be made in English. And since our reliance on the service sector will continue thus to grow, perhaps we should see this as an opportunity to expand the profitable business of teaching English to foreigners.
In the long-term, things may work out for manufacturing. Car production will decline, inevitably, because driverless vehicles, on-demand apps and an increasingly urbanised population will reduce the need for car ownership but, if the industry redirects its resources – to the development of batteries and renewable energy systems, for example – there could be a resurgence of manufacturing in the UK. However, since  Hofstadter’s Law predicts that it always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law, our politicians need to get to grips with some proper forward planning for the long-term – before a ‘strong leader’ elbows them aside.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Doris Damaged My Umbrella

I see we have begun to identify individual storms, as we already do hurricanes, by giving them people’s names. It works well, especially here in Britain where we are especially inclined to converse about our weather-events: they are more memorable if they have a human identity. “You know when Eric blew in the other week? He played havoc with my roses.” It is always gratifying to be able to name and blame someone else for one’s misfortunes and this extension of the phenomenon to natural causes is amusingly human. It makes me feel better to say that Doris damaged my umbrella, despite knowing that the responsibility for its reckless deployment was mine.
It happened on the way back from the cinema where I had just seen20th Century Women in which Annette Bening plays the single mother of a teenage son (and surrogate mother to his girlfriend and a young female lodger). There’s a lot of young-person-angst in the script but it’s handled with humour, so much so that when the mother, exasperated by it all, retorts “For God’s sake, worrying about whether you’re happy is just a short cut to depression,” the audience laughed out loud. I imagined them thinking “Yeah, get a grip. Life is full of set-backs.” And how should we define happiness, anyway? Is happiness a permanent state of relative contentment or does it comprise intermittent periods of relief from misery? I think Daniel Dennett nails it when he says “the secret of happiness is to find something more important than you are and to dedicate your life to it,” though that is easier said than done.
The cinema is in an arts complex and before the movie I was drawn to a kiosk in the foyer where passers-by were invited to try a ‘virtual reality experience’ promoting a forthcoming performance. The young person in charge of the setup, sensing that I was wary of donning a blank-faced scuba-diver’s mask, gently encouraged me with phrases like “you’ll soon get used to it” and “it only lasts four minutes” so I surrendered my dignity and took the plunge. I was transported to a writer’s studio in Paris in the 1930’s with a disembodied, animated head floating in front of me delivering a monologue. It took me a while to realise that by fixing my gaze to the front I was missing stuff. You have to move your head around: turning it left and right I was able to see into the corners of the studio; tilting it up and down I could see the ceiling and, weirdly, a representation of my own hands and knees. “What did you think?” asked my facilitator at the end. I could not think of an original or incisive thing to say. “Interesting” was about it but, later, I was able to apply the experience in a very practical way. Having just acquired my first pair of varifocal specs and finding them to be disorientating, I put them away. Trying them again later, I found that, by moving my head around, I could focus on different aspects of my surroundings. It still felt a bit like VR, however: distanced from real life by an invisible shield.
A few days afterwards I found myself back at two of my old haunts – the house I had lived in but left more than 20 years ago and a pub which had been an important social hub before I ‘settled down’. My thoughts drifted back to those former times and, at first, only happiness appeared through a haze of nostalgia. But I knew this to be a misrepresentation of reality – a sort of naturally occurring VR phenomenon – and made an effort to include in my recollections those events which could not be described as happy, not all of which I could – in good conscience – avoid blame for. To Doris I owe an apology.