Saturday, 25 October 2014

Coffee: A Nation Divided

I've adopted a new coffee bar in town as my favourite. It's a comfortable, tranquil place, the baristas are friendly and they make the coffee expertly with knowledge, pride - and beans, dark-roasted, Italian style. But I do have a quibble: although I like cappuccino I am becoming frustrated by its uniform ubiquity. Where can I get a lightly-roasted bean? Whatever happened to cafetieres? Then I saw a scene in a TV documentary which showed, in some distant province of England, a customer ordering coffee in a high street cafe. The proprietor shamelessly dipped a spoon into a catering-size tin of instant granules, mixed them with hot water in a mug and charged him £1 for the beverage. Is this the alternative offer?

I realise that the native culture of England is far from homogenous, although I came to that knowledge relatively late in life. (I attribute this to my upbringing - educated to become a model employee, ensconced in the culture of the armed forces of an empire in steep decline. Ours was not to reason why etc.) Not until I went away to university did I have my first face-to-face encounter with other English tribes, notably northerners (one of whom convincingly demonstrated how startlingly more vituperative curses can sound when uttered with northern vowels - try it yourself, at home).

My point is that broad national unification is a good thing - as long as it allows sufficient cultural diversity to ensure the expression and development of new ideas. The alternative - tribal conflict - is too debilitating to contemplate. The unification of England and, later, the rest of Britain into one polity was a long and bitter process during which coercion and subjugation were the primary means employed. Lately that unity has been tested (by more democratic means) and it would be naive nowadays to think of national boundaries as fixed, immutable or even "natural". Boundary disputes are inevitable: nation states come and go, some more quickly than others. In order for unity to endure, it is necessary not only to have shared interests, such as prosperity and security, but also more permanently binding agents, the first of which is a common language.

A current exhibition at the British Museum, Germany: Memories of a Nation, got me thinking about how comparatively uncomplicated it must have been to create a British nation. The story of Germany is confused by - among other things - the fact that it has so many neighbours and its territorial shifts have been so frequent, whereas Britain's island status has at least ensured a degree of geographical integrity. The art and artefacts comprising the exhibition are, therefore, not necessarily from Germany as defined by today's borders. In seeking to trace the roots of German identity within Europe through 600 years of cultural commonalities, the curator has assembled a necessarily diverse collection of objects. Among these is a copy of the Bible translated by Martin Luther in 1534 into the commonly spoken dialect of the German people, thereby loosening the stranglehold the Church had established on interpretation of the Gospels (one year later Coverdale published the first complete plain English translation). Now, with something comprehensible to read, Gutenberg's invention really came into its own.

I may have been lured into the exhibition by Bauhaus and the Beetle but I came out with a more profound understanding of how it might feel to be German and a strong desire to be more European. I found myself a pub where, over a pint of Suffolk ale made with Austrian hops, I fantasised about my ideal European Union - one where 'national boundaries' are redefined as 'cultural guidelines'; cappuccino is only one of many options on the menu; and the English language is de rigueur.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

On a Scale of 1-10...

My heart sank when my partner decided to buy a new laptop: I foresaw a stint of duty at the IT helpdesk. I am no expert but, in the land of the clueless, he who has an iota of knowledge is in demand. Since our household is fully committed to Microsoft (i.e. ensnared in its systems and afraid of the complications of disentanglement) the migration from old to new laptop involved "upgrading" from Windows 7 to 8 and, to give an idea of the complications involved, one entire morning (mine) was spent persuading our printer to cooperate with this undertaking.

This pales to insignificance when compared with the week-long saga involving Vodafone and its no-longer-compatible dongle. Communicating with big tech companies is notoriously difficult for those who favour the old fashioned pick-up-the-phone approach. While I concede that finding a Microsoft phone help-line is unlikely, some of the companies closer to home, such as the inappropriately named TalkTalk, do have phone numbers buried deep in their contact information. But the thing to remember is that, although you might very much want to talk to them, they are not inclined to talk to you. They have more cost-effective systems.

The first thing they advise you to do is trawl through a list of FAQs that do not touch on your problem; then you are urged to follow threads in user-forums frequented by desperate, pleading technophobes; after that there are long-winded articles published on "knowledge bases"(who has time to become an expert in all this stuff?); or there is live-chat (email) with people who may or may not be able to resolve your problem but for whom I feel sorry, doomed as they are to spend their days dealing with frustrated customers attempting to vent their spleen via a keyboard when all they really want to do is shout.

After all this what do you get? A Satisfaction Survey - Did our operator today solve your problem? Yes or No. (There is no provision to answer "I'm not sure yet since I have to reboot my system and start all over again".) On a scale of 0-10 how likely are you to recommend TechEmpire to a friend? (I would really like to answer "my friends are very dear to me").

In any case recommending anything to anyone should be done only if hedged around with provisos. The Albanian Scouser who fitted my new ceiling was a very skilled and efficient worker who did a good job. He was also a charmingly well-mannered person with a lively and enquiring mind. Would I recommend him to someone else? Yes, but: that someone else might have different expectations, standards, peccadilloes etc. - and they might not be able to understand a word he said. Let's just say that I would feel comfortable making an introduction. Recommendations can so easily rebound.

Last evening my friend was in town and we met up to do some of our favourite things: wine, beer, food and jazz. Being the home-town host I was confident of being able to deliver the best possible experience in each commodity, but it was not to be. The wine bar, chosen for its unusually comprehensive list, was closed to customers because of a private event. The restaurant, which had received a rave review in the national press, was underwhelming. The jazz gig had its moments but they were too few-and-far-between to persuade us to stay to the end. If it weren't for the plentiful choice of good beers - and bars which stock them - our satisfaction score-card might have looked zero-heavy.

Which reminds me: my partner hasn't yet returned the Satisfaction Survey I emailed her.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Built-in Culture

If you were to walk past the building I live in you probably wouldn't notice it. Although it's old - circa 1840 - and quite handsome, it doesn't differ from the other buildings in the block and so doesn't stand out from its fellows. Presently we have contractors in - as is the way with old buildings - fixing the ceiling, which involves scaffolding, noise, dust and general disruption, so I'm spending a lot of time elsewhere.

One place where I found sanctuary recently is in a building, from the same period, about a mile away. Previously I've walked past it many times without noticing it. When originally built as a villa for well-to-do middle-class families, it was set on a spacious plot in a green-field development on the edge of town. Over time, however, its salubrious surroundings became compromised by the encroachment of high-density housing for the working class, its garden was sold in the seventies for the building of a block of flats, and any vestige of its former prestige was buried in the camouflage of its higgledy-piggledy surroundings. Now, in the interest of preserving a slice of heritage, the house has been restored to its former glory and elevated to a degree of national celebrity: the refurbished doors were opened to the public last week to celebrate its new status as a museum. For this is where Elizabeth Gaskell lived with her family from1850 until her death in 1865, during which time she wrote most of her best-known novels.

It's not unusual to come across houses which have been the homes of famous people, although sometimes there are surprises like, for example, the modest terraced house in Audenshaw which bears a blue plaque marking it as the early home of Frank Hampson, creator of the comic character Dan Dare. While he may be less of a household name than, say Banksy, his imaginative creations had a significant cultural influence on millions of us Englishmen brought up in the 1950s. Chancing upon his birthplace, I was suffused with the comfortable feeling of "belonging". Dan dare and I are both products of a linear, indigenous culture: I could sense his origins, empathise with his ethos. In the case of Elizabeth Gaskell's house, the same is true, albeit on many more levels than at first might be supposed.

Elizabeth Gaskell, acclaimed novelist, is further distinguished by the fact that, as a woman in a male-dominated profession, the odds were against her becoming successful. Reading her books is a way to understand the workings of a society which was changing fast around her: but visiting her house/museum adds other dimensions to that understanding. For one, it affords an insight into how she was able to cope with motherhood, wifely duties, charitable works and writing: she had the help of five servants. For another, it becomes apparent that the house was a cultural hub of considerable significance. The list of genuinely "household" names associated with it forms a remarkable catalogue of influential figures of the time and a reminder of the extent to which artistic creativity and political radicalism abounded in and around the first of the industrial cities. Charlotte Bronte stayed there several times; visitors included Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Holman Hunt. Charles Hallé taught one of her daughters piano. Family connections included the Wedgwoods, the Darwins and the Nightingales. I don't think I shall ever walk past a house again without speculating on to what extent I am culturally indebted to it.

Maybe I could order one of those blue plaques for our building. It might be simply - but intriguingly - inscribed "Wonderman was here". That would make it stand out. The contractors could fix it while they're here with their ladders.


(The Gaskells' House)

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Tranquil Countryside?

The public space in front of our central library is being re-modelled and the scheme involves repositioning, renovating and enhancing the Lutyens-designed cenotaph. This part of the project was completed last week in time for the scheduled war-commemorative ceremonies. It incorporates elegantly curved low walls and benches in Portland stone, designed to enclose a space of "quiet contemplation" in front of the monument. Not everyone, however, appreciates the sentiment: skateboarders and trick-cyclists have already begun to use the stones as a practice facility, causing both emotional and physical damage in the process. Outrage is building and plans are afoot to thwart them.

I would have liked to stay in town to lead a vigilante posse against them, but we were committed to going away last weekend. I prefer not to travel on a Friday evening because everyone else has the same plan, but we were not going far - an hour's drive to Blackpool. Unfortunately the usual Friday evening congestion was compounded by road-works on the M6 and the fact (unknown to us) that Blackpool's famous illuminations had been switched on. Three hours later, in the centre of Blackpool, we were finally able to peel off from the queue of vehicles inching towards the seafront light-show.

What had brought us to Blackpool that evening was an obligation to attend a rubber-chicken dinner, but we planned to make the most of our trip by extending it to do some walking in Lancashire afterwards. On Saturday morning we were able to drive unimpeded along the town's five-mile seafront which, in the plain light of day, presented an opportunity to marvel at the phenomenal popularity of the place. It is, admittedly, in decline as a holiday resort - but was it ever an attractive town? Its buildings - one or two excepted - are modest, many are tawdry and the layout of the whole place appears to be random, not designed to impress. But I suppose the aesthetics of the built environment are of no consequence to the mass of visitors whose purpose is holiday fun. We drove to the next town, Fleetwood, and its more elegant seafront where the main attraction seemed to be the model boat club-house and pond.

Our destination was the western edge of the Forest of Bowland, where the camping site we had chosen - for its convenient location - was a little too close to the M6 and its surprisingly loud, insistent roar. The proprietor turned out to be a friendly chap who, with little prompting (and without mentioning the background noise), told us of his all-consuming work: filling in application forms for charitable funds to get money for the village's public amenities. Before leaving us to resume his work he pressed a feedback form into my hand. I thanked him and wished him luck, raising my voice to compete with the sound of a west-coast mainline train which was whizzing past us in the near distance.

Still, there were ducks' eggs for sale, left in a box with a jar for the money. We bought half a dozen and later made them into an intensely yellow frittata. And the walk, advertised as "offering impressive views without too much exertion", lived up to its promise. For the next five hours we trod various terrains: over low-lying fields; across streams; into wooded valleys; up to a trig point and down through deserted lanes back to the village. The only constant feature throughout was the drone of the invisible M6. But the weather was ideal and the exercise built a keen appetite for aperitifs and a hearty supper. I slept well that night - albeit with ears plugged.

Back in the city the next day, I went to check on the cenotaph. No further damage had been inflicted. In fact, it was noticeably quiet there: ideal for a spot of contemplation.

Friday, 26 September 2014

WIP

Two weeks ago there was an unusual event: the pavements in our vicinity were jet-washed. The following week there was another: a team of litter-pickers got to work on the streets. Pleased but puzzled, I asked myself some questions. Had the city council finally noticed that the pavements had begun to smell? Had it finally acknowledged that human operatives are needed to reach the nooks and crannies where the sweeping machines can't reach? Where had it found the money to pay for enhanced cleaning at a time when hand-wringing austerity is the default? Eventually I found my answers by joining the dots: the Labour Party's annual national conference was about to open in the city and our Labour Party-dominated council would be keen to create a good impression.

Now the conference is over, the litter-pickers have disappeared and we, the residents, have to cope (without counselling) with dashed expectations. But we all must learn to manage our expectations if we are to avoid either being disappointed or falling into a slough of bitter cynicism. The Manchester Food and Drink Festival - currently being staged - is a case in point. Given that there are no food specialities associated with the city, it should be no surprise that the stalls  offer only take-away meals - pizzas, hot-dogs, burgers and suchlike - none of which is special. On the other hand, because Manchester still has several good, family-owned brewers, the beers are worthy of celebration. Expect, therefore, no hand-rolled cheeses to take home but rather a few beakers of decent ale to wash down the street-food of your choice and you will not be disappointed. Consider also that if progress is to be made towards excellence, any festival is better than no festival. Let's think of it as "Work In Progress" - WIP.

To live here is to experience full-on the implications of WIP. In this formerly industrial city, there is a will to establish a new economic engine and much is being done to that end: knowledge-based businesses are being encouraged; buildings are being replaced or recycled; infrastructure and transport systems are being modified to accommodate changing demographics; plans for the long term are being drawn up and collaboration with the wider region is being discussed. Even so, there are projects recently completed which already look too modest in ambition and may soon have to be demolished. (It's as well that their architectural pedigree is too mediocre to mourn.)

One of the more ambitious schemes, stalled by the 2008 debacle, is the reclamation of a large area of inner-city brown-field formerly occupied by Victorian industries and criss-crossed by derelict canals and basins. Some housing clusters were completed, others are now being re-started, but the area has a pronounced WIP feel about it. I arrived there by tram the other day and alighted, along with one other passenger, at the hopefully-positioned station (called New Islington) which may, one day, have a cafe, shop and cycle-parking facilities but, for the time being, remains a desolate outpost alongside a big, blind block of flats on one side and un-reclaimed ground on the other.

"Do you know where the Albert Hotel is?" asked the other passenger. She was a middle-aged woman with a suitcase. "Am I in the right place? It's a bit desolate around here."
"It's back on the main road: about two hundred metres," I said, pointing to a new building on the edge of the derelict land.
"Oh dear," she said. "I don't fancy walking back here later this evening."

I tried to reassure her but she remained visibly uneasy as she set off. If all goes to plan this may be a pleasant, thriving residential area someday. Meanwhile, it's WIP City.