Thursday, 27 April 2017

Ode to Alexa

At the last gathering of the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society, our host for the evening presented his chosen subject in a hi-tech, multi-media tour de force. He dazzled us with DVD, CD, Sonos, Youtube clips on a ‘smart-TV’ controlled via a dedicated iPhone app and – most wonderful of all – Amazon’s voice-controlled assistant, Alexa. Considering our host had quite recently professed ignorance of “streaming” and other modern media mysteries, it all went swimmingly well (barring the glitch with the iPhone app – which would have gone un-noticed had he not mentioned it). We all were particularly taken with Alexa and the possibilities she presents, among them being the elimination of the bother of finding one’s specs.
Days later I saw the film The Sense of an Ending which is set in the present but is really about the past. The protagonist – a man of the HMJAS generation – is consumed by the memory of an unrequited teenage love but has otherwise adjusted to his present life. Like most of us, he uses a smart phone and a computer – up to a point – but the flashbacks to his schooldays show us a time when the most advanced form of personal technology was the transistor radio, a valued piece of kit among teenagers in those days, despite the dearth of cool material being broadcast. The best that one could hope for back then was a steady signal from Radio Luxembourg in the evenings and some private time on Sunday afternoons, ears glued to The Top Twenty in anticipation of hearing the very few decent tracks that made it into the chart. All this was part of getting to grips with the world in general and romantic love in particular. Today’s teenagers don’t have it any easier, despite their possession of superior technology and many more channels of cool content. They still have to contend with the awkwardness of learning about love, the subtleties of which no dating app can mimic. Hi-tech, lo-tech: sometimes no-tech is what works best.
A particular no-tech pleasure I have re-connected with recently is poetry. I have some poetry books but they have lain, unopened, on my shelves for years. I always intended to read them, but very rarely did so. Now, however, my partner and I have come to an arrangement to resolve this issue: we undertake to read one poem a day – to each other. The catalyst for this resolution was my partner, whose enthusiastic appetite for reading has expanded in the poetry department since we went to see the film, Paterson.  Our routine readings are certainly making inroads into the mass of material that lurks in the books: pages that have languished in darkness since they were bound together now are suddenly exposed to the light in all their virgin whiteness, examined briefly for suitable content and either closed again forever or marked out for performance.
And therein lies the rub: which poems should I pick out? The choice of sentiment is important because it can make or break the atmosphere between us. Nothing good, for example, is likely to come from declaiming the woes of unrequited loves past. Better to extol the joys of present union or, better still, avoid all possibility of contention by going down the humorous route.
Then there is one’s performance to consider.  Getting the tone, pace, enunciation, pauses and exclamations just right can make the difference between a reading being properly appreciated or slipping past the audience unheeded or, worse still, completely un-comprehended. So, here is where I thought Alexa might help me. I could just ask and she would oblige by playing back some professionally recorded readings. Call it ‘passing the buck’ but isn’t that what assistants are for?

Friday, 21 April 2017

Good Old Days?

Last week I went to Westward Ho! It’s a nice enough seaside town, a little tatty and run down – as they often are – but undergoing a modest revival thanks to surfers and tourists with a penchant for nostalgia. There is no denying, however, that its name is what mainly distinguishes it: how many place-names include an exclamation mark? Not many, I suspect, although there is a municipality in Quebec that has two!! Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!
My visit was part of a trip down Memory Lane – or I should say Lanes, those comprising the web of routes that connect the towns and hamlets around the coast, combes and valleys of North Devon. Having spent happy times there in my younger days I had great expectations of this latest return tempered, of course, by the knowledge that memory is an unreliable, fawning companion, often obliging with the kind of pleasant associations it knows you prefer and obscuring those which do not fit your idyll. And the places themselves will have changed as ‘progress’ makes its indelible marks. North Devon pre-1988 was relatively inaccessible and its unique cultural identity persisted a little longer than it might otherwise have done. That ended when the A361 trunk road opened, giving expedited access to commerce, industry and the growing number of motorised tourists and commuters encouraged by the easier journey.
But this is not a disaster story: the friends who anchor me to the place are still there and they have not changed. They might sometimes express wistfulness for the time when they felt less pressure from incomers but they are sufficiently well “dug-in” to be philosophical about it. The tourist industry feeds them via the local economy and they want high-speed broadband, good road access and supermarkets like the rest of us. Their children face the problem of expensive housing due to incomers, second-homers and the scarcity of new-build, but this is the same for their contemporaries born and bred in other desirable parts of Britain.
For visitors there are fundamental attractions that are constant: the countryside is pretty, even with the addition of a few wind-turbines; quaint village and town centres are preserved as assets; there is pollock to be had on the menus, pasties in the bakers and dark green laver in the fishmongers. And you can sometimes hear the glorious local accent, with its vowels thick as clotted cream, spoken confidently and proprietorially in contrast to the nondescript babble of incomers. Away from the hubbub is the footpath that makes its way along the Atlantic coast. I walked a section from the estuary at Lynmouth, climbing steeply up and down the sides of a series of combes on the way to Minehead before cutting back inland to Watersmeet where the East Lyn River and Hoar Oak Water join forces in a narrow, densely wooded valley.
All very beautiful, but for a taste of how life used to be in this part of the world it is useful to visit Arlington Court, former seat of local landowners the Chichesters, now owned and run by the National Trust. The estate typifies the way rural life was lived before the First World War: wealth was concentrated in the hands of very few people, social mobility was limited and rural poverty was the norm. The small scale of the “quaint” cottages in the former fishing ports, many of which are now holiday accommodation, reiterates the point. The inhabitants of North Devon have an easier life now than they did back then and Westward Ho! is partly responsible. Built specifically as a holiday resort in 1863, it established a new source of income for the locals; and, if its current revival persists, it might just do the same trick again and earn itself a second exclamation mark!

Up-market seafood trailer at Westward Ho!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Place Prejudice

I’ll tell you now and I’ll tell you firmly, I don’t never want to go to Burnley – the first line of a John Cooper Clarke poem – gives expression to the idea that it’s fine to harbour prejudice against places; which helps me feel better about my refusal to go to Dubai. I want nothing to do with an artificial city that flouts the principles of ecological sustainability and is ruled over by hereditary tyrants who deem it their right to suppress political opposition and deny equality to the female half of the population. In any case, there is nothing there but bling, which is about as relevant to my life as haute couture to an Outback sheep-shearer. Moreover, although I recently read that a former industrial area in the city is being converted into an arts quarter, I am not convinced that it will turn out to be anything other than an art market for the wealthy.
Cooper Clarke is being humorous, of course, but strictly speaking prejudice is, I suppose, prejudice and it’s really not fine for me to dismiss Dubai, or any one of millions of other destinations, as unworthy of my visitation. Without first-hand experience of a place, all one’s impressions depend on anecdote or propaganda. In reality, of course, it is impossible to go everywhere and I must rely on my experiences of the places I can manage to get to. But it’s an imperfect science: over time, things change and conclusions that were reached years ago may become invalid. Take the case of Vesta curry, a pioneering product in the field of pre-prepared meals. As I recall, the packet contained dehydrated curry and rice, the proposition being that you could eat exotic food, at home, in front of the TV, without the hassle of going abroad, or to a restaurant, or learning how to prepare and cook it. I bought into the dream at first but soon realised that there was a compromise: it tasted awful. Consequently, to this day, I shun the packaged meals that populate whole aisles of supermarket shelves, despite the probability that culinary advances and consumer focus groups have led to considerable improvements on Vesta.
However, whilst I can happily live the rest of my days without pre-prepared dinners, I cannot say the same about travelling. Since I am not obliged to venture abroad for the purpose of work, nor to support a football team, I am free (not counting the occasional semi-obligatory visits to relatives or friends) to choose where I go. When deciding on a destination for its own sake, therefore, it’s down to either train-spotting – pursuing a particular interest – or whimsy based on, yes, anecdote and propaganda. I have never been to Russia, for example, a country which these days gets a consistently bad press. Yet I would like to look behind the headlines and commentaries. I am intrigued as to how a country with so turbulent a history of wars, revolutions, repression, famine and hardship – all the things we hear about in the West – has, nevertheless, produced so many great artists. In the fields of painting, music, literature, dance, theatre and architecture there is a plethora of Russian names known around the world as foremost in their field (although, unfortunately, the most widely recognised Russian name presently is Kalashnikov). Maybe I should go to Russia – or, more specifically, Moscow and St. Petersburg, where its artistic and cultural treasures are concentrated.
In case you were wondering, I have been to Burnley. It’s seen better days, to be honest, but I harbour some nostalgia for it as the birthplace of Dave Ratley, the first northerner I ever met, and a damn fine fellow – although he never wanted to go to Guildford.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Romans Remain / Roman Remains

Last week I gave expression to my inner artisan by painting a flight of wooden stairs. It was a simple job but one fraught with a particular anxiety – the risk of painting myself into the vertical equivalent of a corner. I would be working my way down the stairs so it was essential to ensure that, once finished, I would not need to go up again until the paint had dried. I made sure that I placed the radio I was listening to at the bottom. The news was on and there was a fascinating item concerning a glut of cauliflowers due to the weather having been favourable this season. (Actually, I mused, the colour of my paint could be called ‘cauliflower’– although that description would probably be deemed insufficiently alluring for the purpose of marketing.) In the days that followed, I began to notice that recipes for cauliflower were cropping up in all the media – even on my FB page – to the extent that I was reminded of the saying News is what somebody else does not want to be known. Everything else is just advertising.
A few days later I duly bought a couple of cauliflowers at the street-market in Salisbury where I had been on a visit (is anyone immune to advertising?). The drive back to Manchester via trunk roads is long and tedious so, to add a little interest, I detoured via Cirencester and stopped off at Chedworth Roman Villa (remains of) to view the mosaics and admire the ingenious hypocaust underfloor heating system. A dozen more Roman villas are dotted around the area, Cirencester having once been a major settlement on the Fosse Way, but Chedworth is the most impressive. Roman troops were recalled from Britain, quite suddenly, in about 410 AD and their departure was followed by rapid disintegration of the infrastructure they had built during their 500 years of occupation. The native population, finding itself without a police force, proceeded to strip the abandoned assets, using the stones to build dwellings and consigning themselves to life without paved roads for the next 1500 years. Why would they do that?
Roman administration brought stability but at a cost: by appropriating everything for themselves and making sure they kept hold of it, the Romans presided over a system of extreme economic inequality – such as is increasingly the case in, for example, the USA where one percent of the population owns half the national wealth invested in stocks and mutual funds. Meanwhile, the mass of humanity struggles to overcome poverty. Roman villas, for all their grace and technical precocity, were the ancient equivalent of today’s private palaces, symbols of a grotesquely inequitable distribution of wealth. For every nobleman living in a villa there were thousands of peasants living in crude shelters so, when the Romans went off to defend their interests elsewhere, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the natives to re-distribute the wealth among themselves.
Some historians argue that unless there are cataclysmic events, such as the Roman evacuation, wealth will remain concentrated in the hands of the few. British history seems to back this up. The last occasions when there was major re-distribution was during the periods of upheaval following World Wars I and II. In recent years, half-hearted attempts to close down offshore tax-havens and eliminate tax loopholes have all met with limited results and the Government’s recently stated intention to legislate for the attenuation of pay packages for the CEOs of large companies will have limited success: legislation cannot eliminate greed. Revolutions and wars are, apparently, more effective agents of change.
It’s depressing. So, while I contemplate whether I would rather remain relatively poor or endure the uncertain outcomes of war and social upheaval, I distract myself by perfecting a supper-dish fit for a noble: roast cauliflower with chorizo.