Saturday, 28 November 2015

Group Activities

I’ve been watching a TV series called Fargo without realising – until episode four, last Monday – that the plot is different from the Fargo series I watched last year; and that the plot of that series is different from the one on which both series are based – the Coen brothers’ film, released in 1996. I should add that I've been watching alone and it wasn’t until I expressed my perplexity to someone else that I was advised to “look it up” on the internet. There I discovered that all the Fargos are indeed different, although they share a common theme - and the Coen brothers’ involvement. But since each and every episode begins with the declaration “This is a true story” I feel justified in claiming to have been misled – my trusting, gullible nature notwithstanding.

It goes to show that knowledge of context is useful when it comes to understanding what’s going on in cultural entertainment and that group participation has an advantage over solitary enjoyment; and explains, in part, why I am an enthusiastic member of the Heaton Moor Jazz Appreciation Society, a group which takes its subject matter seriously while managing to take itself less so. (Perhaps we all recognise the ridiculous irony in a dozen or so white, middle-class men in their 60s and 70s congregating in the comfortable living rooms of a leafy suburb of a northern English city to celebrate the music of poor, black, people from the desperate, dissolute centre of a southern American city).

Our meetings have a set format: members volunteer, by loose rota, to host a themed presentation of their choosing. They talk on their subject and play recordings to illustrate it. Strong drink is taken and there is an interval for a buffet (pork pies are always the centrepiece). Mastery of modern technology – MP3 files, Youtube clips etc. – can be patchy, but no one complains: our generation is short of experts. In this week’s session our host, well-known for his “roots” preference and having declared that modern jazz had dominated the sessions too much of late, chose to illuminate an era with which I am unfamiliar – New Orleans at the close of the 19th century. Now I’m no fan of this period but it is clear from the earliest recorded examples that powerful, formative music was made there and then. Louis Armstrong, for example, who may be remembered mainly for his showmanship, distinctive voice and the popular hits of his later years, made a spectacular and distinctive early contribution.

Since those days jazz has evolved, developed, migrated, mutated and insinuated itself into our consciousness in ways we may not even be aware of. Without the collective knowledge and experience of HMJAS I would be hard-pressed to find a way through all the myriad paths of jazz: which is why when someone says to me I don’t like jazz, what I actually hear is “I haven’t listened to much of it”. There is no doubting that the very word “jazz” is not up to the task of defining all the various strands and if it puts you in mind of New Orleans circa 1905, marching bands, striped waistcoats and bowler hats, remember that’s only the beginning of the story.

This year I’m organising the society’s Christmas lunch. It will be an all-male affair – again. I’m not sure why we don’t have any women members - I have at least one female friend who is an aficionado - but the combination of pork pies and older gentlemen might be a deterring factor. Hopes rose when a member's wife once attended a meeting, but it transpired that her book club had been cancelled just minutes beforehand. Perhaps we should set up an outreach programme.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Sowing and Reaping

I count as friends the two ex-colleagues who took over the company I founded: even now, years after my retreat from the hurly-burly of business, despite their busy lives, they generously give up an evening once-in-a-while to take me out to dinner. For their part it may be a ritual acknowledgement of past loyalties but, no matter: we - or, at least, I - enjoy the fruits of their continuing toil.
Our latest rendezvous was in a newly developed part of the city where planners have sought to ensure that, when the office-towers empty, life remains in the streets below: a multitude of bar-cum-restaurant operations line the piazzas, luring punters with showy interiors, exotic themes and dodgy cocktails. But at five p.m. on that dark, blustery, November Tuesday they were all completely empty and I was anxious for their prospects of covering their overheads. Arriving early (yes, there was a joke later about my being a "man of leisure") I discovered that the place we had nominated was about to host a private party, so I investigated some of the alternatives nearby, starting with the most recently established, a Lebanese mini-chain I had previously seen in London.

As I studied the menu, displayed on a stand outside the entrance, a very young member of staff came out to offer me assistance. Because of her olive complexion and black, curly hair I took her for Lebanese, but when she smiled and said "Hiya!" there was no mistaking her working-class Salfordian heritage. She went on - with the enthusiasm of a recent convert - to proclaim the excellence of the establishment. "Thanks, but I was just looking to see if you serve beer," I said (wary as I am of dodgy cocktails).
"We do," she said, "but I don't think they're all on there. I'll go and get the big menu from inside." Her willingness to please was charming - although it carried the faint whiff of a recently-completed training module.
"It's okay," I said. "I'll take your word for it."
"You coming in then?"
I looked in at the rows of vacant bar-stools and, beyond that, the 100 or so empty covers in the dining area. "Maybe later, if I can persuade my friends."
"Oh, they'll love it 'ere," she said. We parted on jovial terms.
In the event my friends were easily persuaded and fifteen minutes later our party - two male, one female -comprised the total number of customers in the Lebanese joint and commanded the complete attention of the waitress. We men ordered Lebanese bottled beer - just for the novelty of it, while our female member wanted vodka. "Which ones do you have?" she asked the waitress.
"I'm not sure", she said and hurried off to find out.
"I think she's new to the job," I said and we sat back to wait.

When she returned with the bad news that our friend's preferred brand was not on offer there followed some good-natured banter which somehow led to our waitress telling us the story of how she came to be there.
"You know when you go to the Job Centre, right? And they tell ya you 'ave to go where they send ya? Well, they sent me 'ere and told me to wear this outfit, right. So, anyway they asked me if I wanted to apply for a job and I said yes and they did an interview and they took me on."
She looked so pleased with the outcome that we were moved to be happy for her. I thought back to my first job - a kitchen porter in a cafĂ© - and hoped that simple employment would not be the end of her ambition; that one day she would be waited-upon in smart restaurants.

But by now she had practically joined our table and was singing her employer’s praises. My empathy quickly waned and I interrupted her flow. “So,” I said, “these drinks…”

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Cyber Story

If you have a good internet connection it’s possible that you will need to step outside your home only on rare occasions - to visit A&E, for example. Indeed it could be argued that, given the likelihood of catching a deadly infection in hospital, it would be better not to bother even with that. Everything can be delivered to your home - although it doesn’t always happen without glitches, as I was reminded when I unpacked my grocery order and found it was short of a bag of frozen broad beans. But wouldn’t you miss the company of other human beings? Well, these too can be brought to your home - by way of invitation to dinner, drinks, tea, a game of poker, casual sex or whatever. The flaws in this arrangement, however, are firstly that guests may outstay their welcome and, secondly, that there will be no chance-encounters with faces either new or old.
With this in mind I ventured to the upstairs room of a local pub last week where a story-telling event provided an opportunity for a couple of hours of good old-fashioned live, interactive entertainment and, although I didn’t make any new friends, I did bump into a couple of old ones. The story tellers - three amateur and one professional - were admirable in so far as they had the skill to tell a tale and a belief in the need to maintain the oral tradition. But in doing so they recall a time when illiteracy was the norm and audiences had no way to distinguish word-of-mouth myths from historical facts. All the stories told were in this mould and, after a while, their charm wore off: what I began to hear was the age-old technique of controlling populations by keeping them ignorant.
A few days later I saw a film called Tehran Taxi by the Iranian director G Panahi, in which he drives a taxi around the city, all the while filming his interactions with his fares. It’s a brave film because, although Tehran looks like a normal city, its inhabitants live under a very controlling regime and, in order to avoid conflict with the authorities, their everyday activities are suffused with layers of covert behaviour and their conversations are guarded and coded. Their version of home delivery is a man with a bag full of Western DVDs quietly doing his rounds - like a genteel drug dealer - with the aid of a complicit taxi driver.
You might be thankful not to be living in a place such as Tehran; but consider the normal-looking cities in the UK, where people go about their legitimate activities apparently untroubled by a regime intent on imposing its religious-social code on all inhabitants. We face another kind of intrusion - that of the CCTV camera. Someone has calculated that UK residents have more cameras per head trained on us than anywhere else in the world. We are assured that it’s for our own good, to act as a deterrent for criminals and, as if to prove the point, there is a day-time TV programme which shows footage used in successful convictions.
This approach to criminality arguably has a deterrent effect but it tackles the symptoms not the causes. The two most effective ways to prevent crime are: to develop a caring social structure that nurtures individuals; and not to criminalise harmless activities. There will, of course, always be crime based on greed rather than need. As Roosevelt said, “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”
But official UK statistics claim to show that crime is falling: evidence of the effectiveness of surveillance as a deterrent? Er, no. Cybercrime is on the rise: evidence of criminals realising the benefits of staying indoors and ordering in, just like the rest of us.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Credit Where It's Due

How time flies in the world of technology! My partner has just ditched the "new" laptop she bought 18 months ago because, despite its many attributes, it had two maddening characteristics: it was unable to keep up with the speed of her neurotransmissions and it was reluctant to connect with unfamiliar Wi-Fi systems - as if it was shy or suspicious of them. If there are two things we all expect from computers these days they are speed and Wi-Fi connectivity so it has been discarded, its cost written off, and replaced by a model which is not only faster but also bolder (it needs to be, since it has no socket for cable connection to a router).

It is also quite expensive, so before buying it we reviewed our finances - mindful, as always, of Mr Micawber's advice to heed the importance of cash-flow and its starkly alternative bottom line results, "happiness" or "misery". This I was able to do on my own laptop because - while I will always be grateful to Micawber for explaining so succinctly the advisability of regulating expenditure according to income - I do have Microsoft to thank for providing a tool with which to do the maths: the Excel spreadsheet. Left to my own devices the calculations would most certainly be questionable. Happily, as it turned out, the insertion of the proposed purchase into the "November" cell did not turn the ink red further along the row. How I love computers - sometimes.

But people's expenditure isn't always controlled according to Micawber's rational principle. All too often a cashflow will result in "misery" because of unaffordable purchases. Perhaps in such cases the possibility of a lottery win might have been factored hopefully into the equation? When I was re-organising my favourite websites into folders yesterday (it was raining) I noted with some alarm that I had filed the National Lottery website in the 'Finance' folder, along with HSBC, Halifax, Lloyds, HMRC etc. Optimistic? I think so: to date the National Lottery has had only a negative impact on our finances.

It has been observed that "Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't need, to impress people they don't like". It's true that we are easily persuaded to spend more than is necessary - whether we can afford it or not. The power of branding proves the point. Apple, for example, is the only manufacturer which makes a good profit on handsets. It does this by being able to convince people to pay much more than they would for other brands and, while there are those who buy an iPhone because they prefer the technology, there are others who simply want to be seen to be able to afford it. Some can afford it: for the rest there is credit - a concept which tests the notion of affordability. A cautionary note here - and I'm sure Micawber would have agreed: credit is better employed in the acquisition of appreciating assets than it is in the purchase of depreciating hardware.

But this inclination to buy stuff on credit may be just a passing phase. Futurologists are already predicting the end of personal ownership of cars - once they become driverless and universally available on-demand per journey there will be no need for individuals to buy them and keep them parked up for most of their useful life. It could be the beginning of the end of superfluous consumption and the dawning of a new age of sustainable economics. For years now it has been possible to rent mobile phones: I hope the same will apply soon to laptops, as I've accumulated quite a few "old" ones already.

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Messy Lives

This week I visited Hardwick Hall, a 16th century stately home that was built to impress and has a fascinating history. It was commissioned by Bess of Hardwick who worked her way up from relative poverty - via four marriages - to become the second wealthiest woman in the kingdom. She specified an unusual layout: there is no grand entrance hall at ground level and the lavish state rooms are situated on the upper floors. Although it was occupied by her descendants until 1959, the building escaped re-modelling because it was used as a mere secondary home. The last, solitary occupant made herself cosy in just a few of the smaller rooms, which she equipped with modern appliances and furniture. The rest she left alone. She had done what many of us do - she had adapted the space to the way she actually lived.
Hardwick Hall
Bess’ other house, Chatsworth, which was preferred by her descendants, is in a later but no less magnificent style. In talking about it with a friend we agreed that, although the architecture and setting of the house are exquisite, the interiors - lavish and opulent though they are - do not impress in the same way: they are messy. The rooms are decorated in a variety of fashions and contain a seemingly infinite and disparate collection of furniture, ornaments and knick-knacks. Consequently they do not cohere stylistically. While the vision for the building and its setting was clearly realised according to strict professional disciplines, the interior reflects the fact that daily lives are not lived according to immutable patterns. Only a vigilant and fastidious stylist is able to resist the gradual accumulation of mismatched items and it takes a rigid disciplinarian to throw out granny’s sideboard because it doesn't meet the current design aesthetic.
Is it possible to design interiors that suit the way people live? I read that, in California, a billionaire is having a house built to his specifications, one of which is a dressing room for his wife which incorporates a raised catwalk so that she can try on her outfits in front of an invited audience. Extravagant, but I suppose it could double up as a nifty skateboard track for their kids. Most of us, however, don’t have bespoke residences built for us; we make do with what has been built speculatively, in which case the organisation of the interiors involves a little compromise. And stylistic integrity, if it is considered at all, takes second place.

In mid 1940s America there was a serious attempt to re-think the way that houses for the masses were designed and built, and husband and wife designers Charles and Ray Eames took up the challenge enthusiastically. Their idea was to make a flexible living space that could meet the requirements of the ways in which people wanted - or were obliged - to live. They were driven by philosophical ideals that valued knowledge, discovery, technology and science for the common good, and saw no separation between life and work. It was a bold idea, but it didn't catch on; not everyone is a talented designer who can work from a home studio and, maybe, people prefer to separate their home life from their work - or perhaps they have no choice but to do so. In any case America subsequently filled up with “tract” houses built to patterns which allowed for none of the individuality which the Eames’ envisaged.
The Eames’ were very successful in other fields, however, especially furniture. Some of their pioneering chair designs are still being manufactured and can be found all around the world. I even spotted some in the cafeteria at Hardwick Hall.