Saturday, 25 April 2015

And Your Share Is?

Language evolves. Words take on different nuances in response to social change (e.g. "gay"); sometimes they are co-opted into use when technological developments outstrip linguistic innovation and leave us short of adequate terminology (e.g. "floppy disk"). It's a fact that no amount of pedantry or protest can prevent this process. Nevertheless, it is worth pausing to consider whether the meaning of a word has become so changed as to become contradictory. If, for example, you thought that the verb 'to share' meant to give some of what you have to someone in need, then Facebook would have to disagree: its definition is to distribute, to spread around, to make available and, ultimately, to monetise (sell) information it does not really own.

The internet has enabled a whole, so-called sharing economy, one which encompasses a variety of activities from true sharing (as of information) through collaboration (as in pooling resources) to renting (as in, for example, Airbnb or Uber). At best, using "sharing" when you really mean "renting" degrades the meaning of the word and introduces confusion, potentially disenchanting those who would otherwise be attracted to the sharing economy. At worst, it's a cover for seeking out occasions when people are already sharing and turning these back into monetary exchanges. This shift in the meaning of sharing should cause us to think about how we understand and describe our interactions with each other.

Things have always changed: it's just that the pace is intensifying. I was staring idly out of the window of a coffee bar, watching a group of about ten infants and two adults walk by. The kids were all tied together at the waist with bright yellow webbing. I've never seen that before, but then I've never sat there before. It's an 'indie' (non-plc) 'pop-up' (temporary) business run by young people who are fanatical about coffee and couldn't care less about customer service. I usually go to a Cafe Néro where the baristas sometimes recognise me and remember my order. When they do I smile and give them a tip (yes, I know it's an intended consequence). But something has changed lately: they now have a contactless card payment system, which means that fewer customers - me included - have any cash about them with which to tip. The employees are suffering a consequent drop in income - for which I'm sorry - but we customers are also missing out. Payment by contactless (what an appropriate adjective) card diminishes the transaction by denying the opportunity of an increasingly rare moment of human interaction - the accidental brushing of fingertips as coins are passed; the meeting of eyes to affirm the deal; the exchange of smiles in recognition of a satisfactory conclusion. While you're waving your contactless card at the machine the barista has lost interest and moved on to the next customer. Your chances of an ongoing relationship have been damaged and an opportunity to share some of your loose change has been eliminated. You might as well go where tips are neither earned nor deserved.

Most of the baristas I encounter are immigrants - that is to say they are not native English-speakers - and with immigration being a hot topic in the present election campaign, it wouldn't surprise me to hear that they have formed a Barista Party, or at least a lobby group pledging support for whoever will guarantee them a continuing right to work in the UK, while pressing for a ban on contactless cards.

But they should beware of promises. The last government's mantra "we are all in this together" contained within it the suggestion that we would share the pain of the economic catastrophe caused by the banks. Apparently theirs is quite a different understanding of the verb to share.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The Provinces Are Calling

Some of us shout into our phones, others speak at what might be considered normal volume, yet others whisper. All three types might be speaking in what, to them, is their usual conversational mode, but the seasoned eavesdropper can detect exaggerated elements of a person's character - from extroversion through to introversion – in the correlated  tendencies either to perform or be discreet.

This week, on the train from Manchester to London, a young woman sat opposite me and answered a call in a voice loud enough to be heard throughout the carriage. She spoke a very entertaining vernacular and one which left me in no doubt that she would be alighting at Stoke-on-Trent. But the real interest was in what she was saying. Her caller was a friend asking for repayment of a loan. Our protagonist explained why she was currently unable to oblige, listing her income and expenditure for the past month, but offering hope in the form of the prospect of a compensation payment consequent on the outcome of an employment tribunal. It also emerged that she had left herself short by “borrowing” money to someone else. The use of the word borrow to mean either lend or borrow is something I've heard before. I've puzzled over how to distinguish between the two different and opposite meanings when using the same verb and conclude that, for people who have no money, it probably amounts to the same thing: the recycling of a scarce commodity. By the time we arrived at Stoke our protagonist had called the person to whom she had borrowed money, extracted a promise of repayment, called her creditor back and made an arrangement not only to settle up but also to have a pint together in the process. We were all very happy for her.

Arriving in London I was expecting to see evidence of a phenomenon reported in the press recently: twenty-somethings migrating from the capital to regional cities (but not Stoke) in search of careers and affordable housing. These reports are apparently exaggerated. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings the streets of Shoreditch and Hoxton were seething with young people deciding which of the myriad bars, restaurants and micro-breweries were the coolest in which to splash their cash. I guess they must be the ones who don't fancy the provinces and have given up on the hopeless task of saving for a deposit to buy a shoebox, preferring instead to blow it all on being young.

While London property prices have risen beyond the means of average earners, those who have been ensconced a long time are reaping the benefit: and none more so than the City of London's medieval craft guilds. I attended a lecture at the Clothworkers Hall - which sounds like the name of a run-down trade union headquarters in a northern town, but is in fact the plush and venerable home of one of the guilds, the Clothworkers' Company. With millions in rent rolling in annually from its land-holdings in the City, it's a wealthy organisation with profound connections to the establishment. The good news is that it distributes its surplus millions to charitable causes, though it's a pity that it is also complicit in the perpetuation of a socio-political system from which the need for charity largely stems.

The next day I went along to see Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album currently showing at another repository of great wealth, the Courtauld institute. I was lucky in that there were very few visitors, enabling a close study of the intriguing drawings. It was also quiet, so I was embarrassed when my phone played its jaunty little tune. I answered as discreetly as I could but, despite my reverential tone and the mundanity of the subject, the attendant frowned and gestured for me to leave the room. I might have got away with this in Stoke, I thought.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Re-creation

On Tuesday we took the train to Chester for a rendezvous with old friends. The weather was so warm that we were able to enjoy a picnic in the park and a boat-ride on the river: springtime has most definitely arrived and what a joy it is to see it again! Each season brings its unique parcel of pleasures - winter frost, summer green, autumn gold - but spring brings something more exciting: rejuvenation, the reassuring re-boot of life's cycle.

Chester itself struck me as having something cyclical about it. The architectural remains of the former Roman city are revealed in places, though they serve mostly as foundations for the medieval city which, in turn, support the Tudor and Victorian buildings. Roman Chester boasted an amphitheatre which seated 7,000 and a public bath-house which incorporated under-floor heating. These things fell into disuse when the Romans decided to leave which, to my mind, is puzzling. Was there no enterprising native (or immigrant) ready and willing to exploit the commercial opportunities of circuses and bath-houses? What were they thinking? "Good, now they've gone we don't have to go to the circus and be made to feel guilty about not bathing"? Today, Chester has a theatre which seats 126.

Back in central Manchester, where there are no green spaces, the manifestations of spring are not exactly in-your-face. In the courtyard of our apartment block some of us have placed potted plants - despite the architects' determination to make no such provision - and a couple of bird-feeders, so that we occasionally get some real tweets. The neighbouring City Art Gallery, however, has embraced the idea on a grander scale: its front terrace has been transformed into a garden with flagstones pulled up, topsoil laid, plants introduced and deck-chairs placed (tastefully) overlooking the tram line. The theme is 'lost garden' as in old-fashioned, informal and unkempt. They've cheated a bit by playing recorded birdsong in the portico, but this may be a temporary measure until the real birds can be persuaded that the garden is not just one of those arty trompe-l'oeil wheezes. In any case the people are flocking there.

The plants continue into the atrium and up the grand staircase where they finally accede to the regular exhibitions and to a large, temporary show called Eastern Exchanges. This show displays traditional East Asian artefacts, Western pieces which imitated them and contemporary pieces which draw on the ancient traditions and techniques which they embody. Like the garden, it raises the question of what differentiates craft from art. An obvious answer could be that, while they share elements of creativity, imagination and skill, craft relates to utility while art does not.

But some craft pieces are so meticulously wrought that they present a conundrum. Ever since the machine age it has been possible to make objects beautifully, accurately and cheaply: continuing to make exquisite, hand-crafted objects seems to be a pointless exercise. The answer to this lies beyond logic. Crafted objects are more than the sum of their parts. Their makers have mastered ways of exploiting the variable qualities of materials to enhance the beauty of their object in ways that machines cannot; and they have an eye for combining form, colour and texture that machines don't possess. Machines may make beautiful, flawless products, but the absence of flaw in beauty is itself a flaw.

Oriental belief systems like Buddhism and Confucianism originally influenced the design of the Eastern objects and encouraged the patient, painstaking mindset of the makers: the rich ruling classes provided patronage in order to maintain traditions and buttress the status quo. These things have changed but the essence of craftsmanship has not. It keeps regenerating itself out of the knowledge and skills of the past, imbuing objects with more than just practicality. Craft, at its most sublime, is a celebration of creativity for the sake of it: and it puts a spring in your step.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Professional Pronouncement

I was on a train to Yorkshire last Sunday and noticed that the pre-recorded voice of the announcer was the same as that on the Metrolink trams in Manchester. I can't say I was pleased because I find her enunciation annoying. She has a way of withholding some of her consonants, in particular the word "will" - as in "the next stop will be" - she pronounces as "wiw". I suspect the cause is the computer programme which, in the process of stringing her words together into meaningful phrases, chops off some of the endings prematurely, thereby presenting a compromised speech format which lacks the charm of an authentic local accent while failing to achieve the crystal clarity of standard received pronunciation.

Still, I am consoled by the fact that she always sounds cheerful, positive and approachable (although she's just a disembodied voice). In any case, her tone is certainly uplifting compared with that of the miserable-sounding woman who announces the landings in the lift at the building I once lived in: if depression were contagious you would have caught it by floor three.

An unthinking or cheapskate approach to vocal recordings can seriously damage the public image of companies and organisations. When office managers, for instance, take it upon themselves to record the phone menu options, the results will often sound humourless, abrupt, abrasive, bumbling or some combination of these. In PR terms, it's a false economy not to employ a professional actor to take care of the telephone interface with the public; they know how to achieve the desired effect. A good example of how to get it right is the Post Office which, some years ago, introduced an audio prompt "Please go to counter three" and, if you didn't know better, you would have sworn it was Roger Moore, sitting comfortably in an armchair, glass of single-malt Scotch to hand, keeping a watchful eye on the queue from behind a velvet curtain. But not all companies get it right. Try calling TalkTalk or Virgin Media and be prepared to be wound up by the relentlessly cheery woman trying just a bit too hard to convince you that it's fun to listen to tedious lists of options which purport to make your ordeal easier but which are really designed to prevent you talking to a real person.

But I digress. I was travelling to Yorkshire to attend a poetry reading staged as part of a friend's book launch (click here for details). During the event half a dozen poets got up to read their own works, so it was an opportunity to enjoy and appreciate their different approaches to poetry. Some poems had unexpectedly funny endings; others were quietly contemplative; and there was one which brought an emotional tear to the eye. I have to say, however, that the quality of the vocalisations didn't always do justice to the written words. Being able to write a good poem doesn't necessarily qualify you as the best person to read it out; conviction alone is not enough. When spoken words are taking centre stage they need performance skills to lend them their full weight. Diction, enunciation and projection are all crucial to the act.

With all this in mind, I tried a little experiment when I got home. How hard can it be, I thought, to read something out loud? So, in the light of my observations, I recorded myself reading a Wonderman blog post to see how it might sound: laid back is how I would describe it. Not in a good way, not in a Mark Rylance-as-Thomas Cromwell kind of way but in an unfocused, drifting kind of way, and with a tendency to drop syllables at the end of some words.

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.