Saturday, 28 March 2015

The Long and Short of It

On Tuesday, after watching the BBC's World News Today (exploring the day's events from a global perspective), I felt duped: the entire programme was devoted to the disastrous plane crash in the French Alps. Yes, it is tragic that all those people died, but how significant is it in the context of world news? Should there not have been mention of some other events like, for example, the deadly schism between Sunni and Shia which claims lives every day? And what about an update on climate change, the single biggest factor affecting the future of us all? I know there are committed journalists who dedicate their lives to investigating such issues, but perhaps it's naive of me to expect TV news editors to risk their ratings by airing 'stale' stories: theirs is a short-term view.

Thankfully, we no longer have to rely on organised media to tell us what's happening - the internet opens other channels of information. Still, the old saying "we are more likely to be concerned by a prick in our little finger than we are about the suffering of others" rings true. For all our knowledge of the world's conflicts and disasters we have difficulty in empathising, in seeing the big picture, the wider context, the link between cause and effect. Nor are we enlightened by our political system which, geared as it is to short-term ambition, encourages us to think selfishly.

Now that the government is coming up for re-election, news media are filling up with squabbling politicians hurling recriminations and seeking to score points. Any hope of hearing a serious debate on principles soon gets submerged in a tidal wave of arguments about minor changes to already over-complicated tax regimes; the validity, or otherwise, of statistics plucked from reports; and claims concerning who said what, when and where. Issues are torn from their context and presented specifically to target sectors of the electorate.

Take immigration, for example: controls are proposed so that those who feel overwhelmed by it will vote accordingly. But why is the population at large so uneducated in its history? Britain is and always has been a nation of immigrants. As for the preservation of British values, would those be the greed, rapaciousness and warmongering which helped us acquire an empire? Should we also include cheating, fraud and avarice, key factors in the financial collapse of 2008?

In order for voters to come to a decision they have two choices: the first, and easier of the two, is to calculate personal gain and vote accordingly; the second, and more challenging, is to take a view that social institutions such as education, health and welfare are crucial to nurturing the myriad individual talents upon which society thrives. A vote for self-interest may be tempting but its results are short-term gain for certain sections of society. The less selfish option promises the chance to lift the millions who are excluded so that they might become net contributors to society and help to produce more widespread long-term gain.

What we need from our political parties is forward-looking plans based on lessons learned from history, research and science. What we get instead is last-minute re-active legislation. TV debates between politicians standing for election could be interesting if they were structured around a motion such as "Should Britain's industrial assets and infrastructure be sold abroad, given that profits, tax-takes and expertise will go with them?"  - but it's probably too late for that particular debate. Perhaps we could try "Should we abandon our Trident independent nuclear deterrent in favour of a strengthened NATO and spend the money saved on education, infrastructure and the NHS?"  That's something plenty of us would vote for - courtesy of those whose long and selfless battles finally won us enfranchisement.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Concrete Proposal

It was a cold and overcast Sunday morning - quite appropriate for a tour of concrete structures in the city centre. The grey stuff looked grim. Our guide was enthusiastic in his account of the history of its architectural, structural and aesthetic applications, although the last of these was hard to swallow.



Manchester has a reputation as a red-brick repository but, if you look closer, you'll see an awful lot of concrete as well. It's to be found in some of the pioneering, early 20th Century buildings; in post-war reconstruction projects; in a collection of stylish, 1960s university campus buildings; in the vast, secret complex of subterranean, nuclear bomb-proof tunnels; and in the Mancunian Way elevated road (which won an award).


Love it or loathe it, concrete, like most things, becomes more interesting upon closer acquaintance. Its applications are numerous, its appearance can be enhanced (painted, polished, embossed etc.) and it occasionally keeps company with much more glamorous materials - the University's now redundant Faraday Building, for example, is a concrete structure which incorporates a specially commissioned series of coloured mosaic panels, Hans Tisdall's The Alchemist's Elements, the fate of which hang in the balance as demolition is mooted. On the same campus there is a rough-cast retaining wall, designed by Antony Holloway, which stands aloof and independent of any other material. It defies beautification, relying instead on mass and form to make its artistic impact. Campaigners have succeeded in listing it for preservation, much to the annoyance of the University which wishes it gone so that redevelopment of the site can proceed - a familiar conflict of interests.

I can't claim to be an active campaigner for the preservation of buildings - I'm unwilling to make the commitment - but I am thankful to the zealots who are prepared to devote their time and energy to determined action in the cause of documenting our history. Sometimes, however, even they have to admit defeat. Halfway through our tour, as we clustered around and gazed up at a forlorn and crumbling concrete house built in 1911, now isolated between two vacant plots on a side-street, our leader lamented the fact that it was beyond repair.
"Anyway," he said, "It's owned by a gangster and he'll break your legs if you start making enquiries." He wants it demolished for the value of the land, in which respect, it may be argued, the gangster's motive is the same as the University's, though his means to the end may be less subtle.


A few days later I was at the medical centre on the adjoining street. The doctor who saw me was not the usual one but, like the usual one, he was polite and attentive - convivial even. As it turned out he was flummoxed by my presentation - a persistent pain in the hip - but we agreed that it probably wasn't anything serious and he promised to ask around his mates for ideas and let me know if anything came to light. While he was making his notes I wandered to the window and saw that it overlooked the back of the gangster's concrete house. Shrubs and small trees were growing in various crannies and gutters.
"Did you know this is an architecturally significant house?" I said and proceeded to tell him why.
"I often see a kestrel perching on there," he said.

Despite his lukewarm interest I ploughed on. "...and have you ever looked up at the gable end of City Tower? The concrete panels are imprinted with a design said to have been inspired by early computer circuit boards. They're very striking in the morning sun" His eyes began to glaze. He was trying to think of a polite way to get rid of a concrete convert.


Saturday, 14 March 2015

Book at Bedtime

I haven't been sleeping too well this week; not that I'm looking for sympathy - it's a first world problem after all - but I am curious as to why some nights I'll slumber contentedly in Hypnos’s warm embrace while others I'll be half awake, tormented by scrappy, disturbing dreams and longing for oblivion. It's not as if I don't encourage sleep: my conscience is currently clear and I do make an effort with 'sleep hygiene' routines such as avoiding coffee after noon, winding down in the evenings and dimming the lights in the bathroom while I brush my teeth - that sort of thing - so it's hard to identify a consistent cause of sleeplessness. However, for this week at least, I'm pinning the blame on Kevin.

Whenever I finish a novel I take it to the charity shop for re-cycling, only to find that I can't leave the place without scanning the shelves for other novels that look interesting, or authors I've been meaning to read. Usually I walk out with a purchase, which means that I'm constantly replenishing an un-planned, self-populating reading list: which is how, this week, I came to be reading Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin, a mother's disturbing account of events leading up to the mass-murder perpetrated by her 15 year-old son, Kevin. And no, I haven't seen the film.

It wasn't so much the horror of Kevin's deeds that unsettled me, as the questions raised by the 'reading groups' which are posted on the flyleaf, especially the enigma of his motive and the nature-versus-nurture argument about how his personality was formed. Resolving this last has been the life-work of many academics and philosophers but without, so far as I’m aware, a definitive conclusion. I’m inclined, however, to the view that society shapes our behavioural patterns or, to put it more poetically, “we are a landscape of all we have seen”. As for the motive, well it’s a work of fiction and it cleverly leaves us guessing on that point – which is exactly what I was doing when I should have been sleeping. Now that I've finished the book I think it would be wise to select the next one using criteria such as “entertaining” and “non-challenging”. That will surely send me off.

Another tried and tested way to get off as soon as your head hits the pillow is to exhaust yourself physically, thereby inducing a positive soporific state by tiring you beyond even the possibility of mental exertion - which includes reading. Now that spring has touched down ever so lightly, it brings to mind the time when I used to have both an allotment and a garden to tend. Those long hours of digging, lugging and bending always sent me to bed tired and, with nothing more taxing to consider than a planting-and-weeding maintenance schedule, sleep was guaranteed. Nowadays I am the curator of just a few tubs and pots in a courtyard and my physical gardening activity is perfectly described as "pottering". Likewise, with my miniaturised maintenance schedule, I suffer no serious anxieties concerning crop failure or Japanese knotweed invasion. Instead my concerns are relatively minor. Will the begonias reappear this year? Should I get some ericaceous compost? Does my buxus look too big in this tub?

Kevin, it seems, had no interest in gardening or any form of activity (other than target practice) but I suppose he, like any other teenager, slept copiously regardless. Maybe he would find it more difficult later, in prison, if he ever developed a conscience. But I, for one, shan’t be losing any sleep over that.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

There's Probably a Word for That

Every now and then an unfamiliar word or phrase will get me reaching for a dictionary (not much of a stretch when you have a smart-phone in your pocket). One such phrase, 'babinski response', caught my attention last week. It's the name of a test for neurological abnormalities (in adults) and it is, seemingly, easy to conduct: you just stroke the base of your foot in a particular way and watch your toes curl - either up or down. Naturally I had to try it out. The result was worrying in that my toes remained stationary, from which it is possible to draw several conclusions: that I have a rare medical condition; that I am a hypochondriac; or that I have no idea what I'm doing. The last of these is the most likely and, guess what, there's a word for it – ultracrepidarianism, the tendency to make judgements or give advice outside of one's area of expertise.

Rather that than hypochondria: no one believes a hypochondriac, whereas an ultracrepidarian stands a chance of not being rumbled - as long as there's no one listening who really knows their onions. In the past few weeks I've had opportunities to test this hypothesis on some of my relatives when, during a flurry of social visits to Manchester, they've allowed me to guide them around some of its attractions. I'm not saying I invented any of the facts and figures that I regaled them with, but sometimes I sailed close to the wind with only the sketchiest of knowledge to propel me forward. I suspect I could have told a few tall tales without being challenged but there was really no need: they all expressed interest and pleasure in the little guided tours. Either they really did gain from the experience or I am fortunate in having exceptionally polite relatives.

But the tours were quite time-consuming, leaving me somewhat behind with my personal projects. So this week I've been determined to apply a little time-management to my days in order to optimise them. Life, however, gets in the way of efficiency. One particular day, trying to work around several fixed points - dropping the campervan off at the garage, visiting a box-office with very particular opening hours, catching the start of a film etc - involved so much criss-crossing of the city that I was left feeling that all I had really achieved was an overdose of physical exercise. (The film - Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter  - was a waste of time, by the way).

One of the things I've noticed while pounding the pavements is the increase in the number of pedestrians navigating with the aid of smart-phone map apps. The technology is terrific and I'm a big fan but it does have drawbacks. Leaving aside the probability that publishers of A-Z street guides must be feeling the pinch, my main concern is that visitors to a city who rely on a phone map will be denying themselves the opportunity to interact with locals - and vice versa. I would just love the opportunity to direct out-of-towners to where they want to go - via a few points of interest personally recommended. If they would like to see some of the local colour that still exists despite the dominance of multi-national brands, I could help. Never mind Google, ask me.

Of course I would never approach them uninvited: they might be taken aback, shy or unfamiliar with English. And I suppose they might prefer the pre-programmed certainties of the phone itinerary to the whimsical responses of a stranger. And who could blame them? He might just turn out to be a logorrheic ultracrepidarian, and who's got time for all that bullshit?

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Snapshot of a Community

I opened an Instagram account last month - just to see what all the fuss was about. (I know, it's been four years since the app was launched, but one does one's best to keep up.) Instagram syncs with my Facebook and Twitter accounts and serves the same purpose - social networking - albeit specifically through the medium of photography. I see that it's a useful way of sharing photos of friends and family with friends and family; I see also that it has potential as a tool for self-promotion; and I see that it's a ready way of honing and showing off one's photography skills. But, in respect of this last, whenever I feel inclined to try for the perfect sunset I invoke the late Ansel Adams who is reputed to have said "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept".

Whether he intended it or not, Ansel Adams' observation can be applied not only to photographs but also to mental images, such as those that politicians have learned to conjure in our imaginations by using carefully crafted sound-bites. In this way they seek to reduce complex issues to simplistic, one-dimensional views impervious to argument or refutation. For example, one which has been ubiquitous of late is "hard-working families". There may be many hard-working families around but the mental picture of them as tightly knit, honest, deserving units of mum, dad and a couple of children battling against unfair odds is Disneyesque in its simplicity. It masks the complexities of individual circumstances, aspirations and social values. Gone are the days when people could be persuaded or coerced into rallying around the three core values of God, King and Country: Britain is now too diverse - and too media-savvy - to buy into that formula.

This was illustrated in my own little corner of the UK by the dissolution this week of the Manchester City Centre Residents Forum. After 13 years of incorporation, the four remaining identifiable members agreed to meet and put a formal end to what had become a dormant entity. It was originally established with the encouragement of the City Council, which was seeking a means of communicating with a population which at that time had grown from zero to five thousand in just a few years. As the regeneration of the city got under way, former commercial and industrial buildings were being converted to residential use and a new "community" was being created. I put my hand up to become a committee member and have witnessed the initial enthusiasm soar and subsequently plummet. At its height the MCCRF, capitalising on the novelty of regeneration, organised popular events and activities based on discovering the city's heritage.  We collected subscriptions and produced newsletters; volunteers leafleted new apartment blocks to expand membership; donations were collected from estate agents in return for insider information.

It was all very labour-intensive, so, as widespread use of the internet took hold, we embraced the tools, establishing a user-group courtesy of Yahoo to communicate via email instead of post. But this proved to be a double-edged sword, hastening the end by making it easier for individuals to air their grievances (especially in respect of parking) and form factions. Apart from occasional requests for recommendations for reliable tradesmen, there was little evidence of "community" activity. Inevitably, face-to-face contact dropped off and physical meetings came to be seen as inconvenient.

All in all it became apparent, sooner than it might otherwise, that the idea of a city centre community was flawed in one major respect: most of the residents, being transient, are somewhat community-averse. The concept of MCCRF ultimately proved to be...fuzzy, and the final meeting concluded with the least transient faction - three sixty-something blokes - discussing football over pints of ale in the pub.