Saturday, 13 September 2014

Nice is Nice

Paris Charles de Gaulle, Rome Leonardo da Vinci and New York JFK are examples of airports which, having adopted the names of national heroes may, wittingly or otherwise, bask in their eponymous reputations and benefit from whatever power those names have to evoke admiration, awe or curiosity.  Naming an airport presents a powerful marketing opportunity - one which London Heathrow has missed out on but which Liverpool John Lennon (above us only sky...) has not. When we flew from there last week I could not help but hum a few of the old tunes (though not without some sympathy for Sir Paul, who must have felt a little put out at being passed over).

The airport we were bound for, Nice Côte d' Azur, would have been hard pressed to choose just one name from a long list of well-known local heroes and has sensibly associated itself more generally with the glamour of its locale, Belle Epoque playground of Europe's aristocracy, latter- day retreat for celebrities, nouveaux riches and tax-dodgers and, more recently, accessible holiday resort for those of modest means. You don't need to be rich to marvel at the splendour of the grand hotels, appreciate the pretty coastline or crane your neck for a glimpse of an exotic villa tucked into a hillside: the local buses and trains provide some of the best views.

For me, a stay in a foreign city is inevitably an opportunity to make comparisons, favourable or otherwise, with my own and it's not long before I'm drawn to the windows of the estate agents. After first impressions comes the question - what's it like to live in this place? The centre of Nice is magnificent: the buildings are handsome, the streets are clean and there is generally a prosperous feel. As in so many European cities, there is a long-established resident population living in apartment blocks, not just in the suburbs but in the centre, and it is served by numerous boulangeries, patisseries, grocery shops and regular street-markets. Living, as I do, in the centre of Manchester I am bound to be envious. Our apartment blocks are newcomers, replacing what used to be commercial and industrial buildings. They are generally not suitable for family accommodation and there is no heritage of local bakers, butchers or grocers. The gastronomic needs of our recently established population are served by Sainsbury's Local, Little Waitrose and Tesco Express supermarkets all offering the same range of convenience foods - and a great many pizza-delivery services.

But a few days in a city is not long enough for me to make up my mind whether I would like to live there. It could be that, despite the availability of so much excellent food and wine in Nice, I might miss the daily struggle to find palatable provisions in Manchester (probably not); or I might become irritated by the hot, sunny weather (probably so); or I might just not fit in. Certainly the African immigrants sleeping rough around the central railway station were finding it difficult. Discreet observation of the locals and their habits gave me a few clues as to what it might be like, although my study was far from scientific. I did like the way that men (and they were mostly men) sat outside the cafes and drank coffee in the mornings with no apparent urgency to get off to work. I tried it myself, ordering coffee just as they did and adopting a dégagé pose, although I realised I would never make the top grade unless I took up smoking. And that was before I noticed that the hard-core were drinking red wine chasers. And then I came across a Carrefour Express down one of the side streets. Well, there goes the neighbourhood, I thought.

Glamorous bus stop on the Côte d' Azur.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Details Matter

I have been fretting about CD cases: they can be opened only by squeezing the top and bottom edges of the face simultaneously with one hand while pulling down the main body with the other. The double ones are even trickier. It's a relatively laborious process and there are no short-cuts. One or two manufacturers have simplified the task by opting instead for simple, folded cardboard sleeves - but even these are sometimes over-complicated by ambitious designers, even to the extent that they become more 'homage to origami' than user-friendly containers.

I make the point not only because, in the process of transferring a thousand CDs onto the new Hard Drive, I am frustrated by the fiddly packaging, but also because it illustrates how the design of new products is so often derivative rather than original. When CDs first came to the market they were presented as LPs, only smaller and shinier. The artwork remained the same scale so the text became too small to read. Their relatively high cost was justified by their novelty - and the unnecessary plastic cases. In fact, CDs did not need to be disc-shaped: I have seen square ones. But discs just happened to be the default of the recorded music industry. We are where we are now - with circular objects awkwardly packaged in rectangular boxes - because of a failure to grasp an opportunity for innovation.

Incremental product design is, in part, explained by incremental technological innovation. The first drivers of motor cars used their arms to indicate their intention to turn. Manufacturers soon introduced a mechanised hands-free flipper, then the flipper was modified to incorporate a light bulb, then a circuit breaker was introduced to make it flash and, finally, the flipper was abandoned in favour of fixed indicator lights. It's probably far too late for a radical re-design of the CD and its packaging - all the associated equipment would become redundant, sales have declined and digital downloading has, to a large extent, replaced the format. But perhaps lessons can be learned?

Technological innovation does not necessarily obliterate older formats: enthusiasts of Hi-Fi sound eschew MP3 files (sales of vinyl LPs are on the rise); intrepid hikers prefer to rely on paper maps rather than battery-powered GPS gizmos; serious businesses use hard-wired phone systems rather than risk poor signal coverage; and many readers still buy printed books. Novelty can bring benefits to users but it's important not to lose sight of the fundamentals - products need to be fit for purpose. I got a new phone to replace my old one which had developed a fault. Sure enough, the new model has faster software, bigger memory, a better camera and so on - all of which is good - and yet I don't much like it. The reason being it doesn't feel comfortable in the hand which, for a hand-held device, is a fundamental design flaw.

A new wine bar has just opened for business in our neighbourhood. There is no shortage locally but I welcome the extra competition since we tend to suffer from 'lowest common denominator' syndrome. Most places offer the cheaper, more commonplace New World SauvignonBlancs, Merlots and Shirazs, plus a token listing of European Riojas and Rhones. The operating principle here seems to be 'low prices + limited choice = maximised profits' which is disappointing for those whose expectations of a wine bar include diversification of type and quality.

But I am hopeful for the new place because it has installed an automated dispensing system which enables customers to taste exotic varieties without the need to a) order a whole bottle or b) risk mispronouncing the name. It's a small, incremental step for technology, but it might just lead to a giant leap in consumption of Thörle Saulheimer Spätburgunder Kalkstein and the like.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Travel Made Easy - Peasy

Budget airlines sell millions of tickets despite the miserable customer experience they inflict. They succeed because they provide cheap and frequent travel to places we want to go to - and even to places we didn't know we wanted to go to until they started landing there. Many a town with ambition to reinvent itself as a tourist destination has extended its runway to accommodate the airbuses.

With our journey to Nice imminent, I thought it best to check the travel documents - you can't be too careful when flying Squeezyjet in case an unwitting infringement of the rules makes you liable for a penalty payment exceeding the original cost of the flight. Sure enough, when it came to the cabin baggage, I found that the overall dimensions specified (including wheels and handles) were slightly less than those of the cases specially bought for our last flight. It was necessary to go out and buy even more bags to add to our collection and, at this time of year with the shops being well stocked with luggage, I anticipated no difficulty. But there was too much choice and when I eventually came across cabin cases labelled "approved by all airlines" I discovered they were actually five centimetres longer than Squeezyjet's specification. I begin to suspect that the airlines have shareholdings in luggage manufacturers.

I remember when suitcases didn't have wheels (porters were plentiful then) but now even the tiniest, lightest ones are fitted with them. It occurred to me that a better option might be a couple of rucksacks since they don't have protruding wheels and they can be expanded or contracted truly to suit all airlines. Rucksack design has come a long way since the canvas and buckled leather originals seen strapped on the backs of ruddy-cheeked youths hiking across the unspoilt English countryside of the 1950s. Now there are nifty designs for specific uses: going to school, commuting with a lap-top, cycling, running etc., so eventually I found one suitable for my purpose. Nevertheless, despite the ingenuity of the design, I wished nostalgically for a simple, old-fashioned duffel bag. It would have suited my purpose admirably.

I stashed the fancy new rucksacks inside the too-big cabin cases and dug out the tatty old hiking rucksacks: we were off to the Lake District for a walk. The forecast was for fair weather and it's been a while since we did anything strenuous so we set our sights on England's fourth highest peak, Skiddaw. The good thing about Skiddaw - on a clear day - is that no map-reading skill is required: the path is well-trodden and visible ahead for most of the way. The bad thing about Skiddaw - regardless of the weather - is that the descent is relentlessly steep and treacherous. Walking poles can alleviate the pressure on leg muscles but since we had left them at home we suffered the consequence - sore thighs for the following three days.

The day after summiting we made our way to the coast for a spot of R&R. We visited Whitehaven, once an important port where ships loaded the locally mined coal. Evidence of the wealth generated by that commercial enterprise is to be found by looking up at the older, grander buildings. But, with eyes at street level, it is hard to see beyond the impoverishment of the contemporary inhabitants and their failing infrastructure. Some money has been found to prettify the harbour and re-fit it as a marina, to fund a museum and to lay acres of fancy block paving but, on that sunny Sunday morning, the only establishments open were a local newsagent, the Costa coffee shop and the monster Wetherspoons pub. Most of the berths at the marina were vacant.

If they are serious about reinventing their town as a tourist destination, maybe they should start talking to Squeezyjet.

And here, for your amusement, is Fascinating Aida singing about budget airlines.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Layered Lives

Early in the week I watched a documentary film about David Hockney. Made in the early 1970s, much of it was set in a posh part of London (Notting Hill?) where he and his friends were based. It struck me that the buildings they inhabited, grand terraces with imposing facades, appeared shabby from years of neglect and that the cars parked along the kerbsides - Minis, E-type Jaguars, Hillman Imps, Jensens, early BMWs etc. - many of which now would be considered desirable 'classics', looked, for the most part, un-polished and un-loved. In fact the whole environment appeared worn-out and washed-up in contrast to the lively, colourful, creative characters it contained and, more startlingly, in contrast to Hockney's by then famous Californian pool paintings - all sparkling cleanliness, sun-soaked colour and sharp, modern architecture.

To some extent the apparent dinginess of 1970s London might be attributable to the lighting and photographic techniques employed by the director, or to the fading of the film-stock over time. Nevertheless, it matches my personal recollection of the down-at-heel ambience of the place at that time which, far from diminishing the pleasure of being there, actually added piquancy to the experience. It was the product of layers of history, the background vibe to everyday life and it formed the cultural foundation for artists of all kinds. When Hockney first went to California, leaving behind the cultural history of England, he quickly became established as 'the painter of Southern California', perhaps because he saw something the Californians themselves had come to take for granted: the fact that the place had been an empty stage for the new Americans who settled there, one on which they could establish a fresh, novel way of life.

Most of us, however, have to accept innovation being added to what we have inherited. We live in old buildings which have to be adapted to modern facilities such as heating, plumbing and Wi-Fi - which can be very tiresome. This week, fed up with my Wi-Fi signal frequently dropping out, I took advice and moved the router to a more central location - easier said than done, given the fixed position of the incoming phone line and the irregular shape of the apartment. In any case, my attempt was ill-planned and consequently costly: by moving the router without properly untangling the wires at the back I pulled the hard-drive storage box, sending it crashing to the floor. I wouldn't have been so distraught had my phone not developed a fault the same day. I subsequently went through the motions of investigating the feasibility of repairs before too easily succumbing to the temptation of buying new, improved versions of both gadgets. Now I have the problem that they are so new and improved that I'll have to spend days learning how to operate them.

Part-way through this process I took a break and travelled to the ancient market town of Oswestry in Shropshire and its nearby hill fort which, although established three thousand years ago, remains a prominent and remarkable feature of the landscape. The present-day town has grown directly from the fort - as is often the case on the borderlands between Wales and England - which makes it a unique and interesting place. But I was keen to walk around the hill fort and feel the fear of the Britons as they faced the Anglo Saxons (or vice versa). In that respect, however, I was a little disappointed: the fort is close to a housing estate; a road runs alongside it; there is a farmhouse built into one side of it; livestock graze on its crown, and dog-walkers parade around its parapets. No empty stage here: the full weight of layered civilisation is present. There was even a strong 3G signal.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Virtual Travelling

The prospect of taking a trip to a place I've never been before has always excited me - especially if that place is in a foreign country. I like to learn a little about the destination by reading and hearsay and then let my imagination go to work, elevating it - in the manner of a holiday brochure or a Royal Geographical magazine feature - into a place of mystery, wonder, beauty or whatever. Our forthcoming visit to the Cote d'Azure, however, has not enthused me in the usual way. Could it be that my appetite for adventure is waning? Or is going there simply not much of an adventure?

The answer may lie partly in familiarity, brought about by the easy abundance of images, information and opinion available in the media and on the net. Before you set foot in a place it is now possible to tour it virtually, canvas the experiences of a variety of strangers, check the weather forecast, and anticipate every meal. It's got to the point of questioning whether it's actually worth paying to go there at all - unless of course you have some specific reason. Be that as it may, our flight is booked and, after many hours spent on comparison websites, so is the hotel.

Meanwhile we have been exploring closer to home - a farmers market on Hampstead Heath - where I found I was having a discussion with myself. Should it be "farmers' market" or "farmers market"? The possessive apostrophe implies ownership by farmers, whereas the unqualified plural implies that farmers themselves are being offered for sale. But what about the bakery stalls? Surely "produce market" would describe the enterprise more accurately? Just as I was coming to the painfully logical conclusion that the apostrophe is shorthand for the absence of intermediary retailers, I spotted a pile of punnets full of gooseberries. "They're very early," I said nodding in their direction.
"They're not gooseberries. They're cucamelons," said my partner.
"A cross between cucumber and melon."
"What's the point of those?" I huffed and turned my attention to the more appealing artisan pies on the adjacent stall.

We bought the makings of a picnic and laboured uphill towards a place with a view, all the while taking turns at suggesting exotic destinations for our traditional escape from Christmas - which is not so easy: I remember once, in Marrakech, being urged by a stallholder to buy an inflatable Santa; and another time, at an eco-lodge in Dakhla oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, being surprised to see tinsel on the dining table. These may be the merest token trappings of the festival but they confounded our efforts at denial and mocked our attempt to establish a counter-culture.
But our thoughts were diverted by the overheard conversation of a trio of teenage girls accompanied by an adult woman. It's not often - never, actually - that I hear teenage girls vying to out-do each other in their knowledge of Homer (not Simpson) and so I listened with interest: "All the best stories are in The Odyssey," claimed one.
"But what about the wooden horse of Troy," said another?
"That's in The Iliad," came a reply.
"But was it true? I mean I know there was one in the film but was it true?"
"Check it on Epicadvisor," said her pal, brandishing a phone.

Eventually we decided to consider going to Beirut, agreeing that although it won't be a Christmas-free zone, it should at least have a "bit of an edge" to it. Back at home, having been tasked with researching hotels, I scanned endless identical websites for one that looked a bit ethnic or exotic but my attention wandered after an hour or so: instead I found myself Googling "cucamelon". Or should that be "cucumelon"?