Saturday, 25 July 2015

Country Life

The man-bag that has served me well for many years is frayed and worn so I’m searching for a suitable replacement - and when I say “suitable” I mean fit-for-purpose, modest in appearance and devoid of flashy branding. It’s a tall order. Having just returned from the countryside, where man-bags are as seldom seen as polished black shoes. I’m also aware that there are those to whom this quintessentially metropolitan dilemma might seem ludicrous, but it takes all sorts to sustain society's cultural fecundity.

I've just spent a few days in a quiet part of the Marches, where the border of rural Shropshire nudges unevenly into Wales (or, if you’re Welsh, the other way round). This part of the country is attractive, especially in July when the valleys seem to overflow with fifty shades of green, the fields seem full - either with fat livestock or ripening crops - and the ancient, soft hills seem to overlook the whole, inviting you to ramble up and over their flanks to admire the vistas under their protection.

It’s easy on the eye but there’s much more to it than that. The ruins of medieval castles dominate strategically important promontories all along the border and the substantial mound of Offa’s Dyke weaves its way around and between them. It’s clear to see that the fight for possession of this fertile land was long and hard. What’s more, whoever gained eventual control subsequently kept the area to themselves. Whether picnicking alone on the ramparts of Montgomery Castle (Trefaldwyn if you’re Welsh), walking cross-country without sight of other people or driving ten miles of single-track road without encountering another vehicle you can’t help feeling that the place is a kind of historical theme park whose existence is known only to a few.

Although it feels timeless, change does occur, albeit slowly. Protected from over-development by being out-of-the-way, many of the small towns and tiny villages look like film sets for costume dramas and this, to some extent, has been to their advantage. The pubs remain in business, traditional inns survive as hotels and there are independent retailers on the high streets. I bought home-cured ham from a butcher’s wife who told me that tourists are increasingly important to trade now that “there’s no money in farming”. Tourists come for the countryside, for the history and for the produce. But the butcher and his wife were looking old and tired. Maybe the shop will be tea-rooms next time I visit. Likewise, at the farm which accommodated my campervan, the farmer’s wife told me she’d lived there for seventy years, which accounts for the old-fashioned, informal charm of the site. I dread returning to find that new owners have painted the fences white and festooned them with safety warning signs.

Finally, I made a token pilgrimage to Newtown, where Robert Owen was born in 1771 and where there is a museum dedicated to this son of a saddler who became a wealthy industrialist and one of the most famous social reformers and thinkers of his age. His heroic promotion of free education and better working conditions for all was so far ahead of its time that, in the UK at least, it still isn’t accepted. “To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate.”  That doesn’t sound controversial to me.

I love this part of the world, with its history spun like a three-dimensional spider-web all over it, but after just a few days I had to drive home. Those hills are a cell-phone nightmare and there was no Costa Coffee shop with free wi-fi anywhere to be found. And as for man bags....

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Woke Up This Mornin'...

“Zip-a-dee dooh-dah, zip-a-de ay / my oh my what a wonderful day…” If only. Occasionally I just wake up in a bad mood – I can’t put it any plainer than that. My self-esteem is low, my attitude is negative and my body is sluggish. I might have drifted contentedly off to sleep some hours before but an unaccountable mood-swing has occurred during the night. I could, perhaps, blame the residual effects of disturbing dreams - if I were able to remember them. It’s certainly not a case of “woke up this morning, trouble knocking on my door” because, for the present at least, things are going swimmingly. No, the cause of the bad mood is a puzzle, one which I ponder while I breakfast alone. (That way it’s just the toaster that gets it. And the radio.)

I guess I’m not the only one who experiences this kind of grumpy awakening, since people have been getting out of bed “on the wrong side” for as long as I can remember. That said, I know a couple of characters whom I suspect of never having done so since they always appear to be in a good mood. But as I’m not present in the mornings when they wake up, I can’t be sure. Perhaps they do but are emotionally resilient and recover quickly, like those toy figures with bulbous, weighted bases that right themselves uncomplainingly whenever they get knocked over. For some of us, however, turning that frown upside down can be more of a struggle.

My personal methods of recovery include the following: mood-altering substances (tea and toast) prepared meticulously and taken in generous but measured quantities; a critical review of my personal circumstances which, on the whole, concludes that my situation is satisfactory, verging on smug; a mental singalong to “Always look on the bright side of life” (I can’t do the whistling part); and, finally, a metaphorical pulling up of socks. If none of this is sufficient, my partner can be counted on to oblige with an encouraging comment, such as “What’s wrong with you, you miserable git?”

Most mornings, fortunately, these measures are not required: instead, the line "Oh what a beautiful morning" will be on the tip of my tongue followed, as I saunter into the street, by the classic Hello lamppost, what you knowin’”. Nothing can be finer than to be in a good mood and when I wake up in one I’m not inclined to dwell on how or why it came about, I’m just thankful. That said, I've learnt to remain on the alert for situations that might spoil things. I'm aware that at any point during the day I might become angry, outraged or disappointed and that any or all of these emotions could tip me into a bad mood. The trick is not to allow this to happen, though how I actually do this effectively, all the while resolutely refusing to embrace a far-eastern religious belief system, is an on-going experiment. Still, simply being awake gives me a fighting chance of making sure I get into bed on the right side. From then on, it’s just a matter of hoping for the best.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Time Shifts

Wimbledon’s on the telly again. It seems to have come around very quickly since last season. Is time compressing as I get older? Certainly the days no longer seem, as they used to, endless and ready to be filled with whatever adventures come my way; the weeks are pitilessly brief, leaving no time for idle frittering; the end of the month seems to loom as soon as it begins; and years feel rationed, inducing the onset of a certain anxiety to get things done before time runs out. All of which might explain a late-flowering of interest in subjects which, in my younger days, would have been peripheral to my consciousness.

Time is limited but subject matter is limitless – this is a formula which induces mild panic attacks, causing me to hop from one subject to another. This last week, for example, I saw a show of Jackson Pollock’s Black Paintings, an exhibition of Ancient Mayan artefacts, a contemporary dance production called The Tree of Codes, a documentary film about Scientology and the first 15 minutes of Shaun the Sheep. I also visited Vindolanda and took a short walk along a section of Hadrian’s Wall. But I have not been watching Wimbledon: you have to draw a line somewhere.

It’s nothing more than coincidence, but I did have pollock for dinner on the day I went to Jackson Pollock’s show and, while I haven’t found time to research whether the names have a common origin, I did read that the artist was (understandably) displeased by his nickname “Jack the Dripper”. Beyond that - and the wonderful paintings - the thing that struck me was that he died suddenly, at the age of 44 which, in my experience, is too young to get a real sense of time running short.

At the Mayan exhibition I studied a time-chart which showed the beginnings of Mayan civilisation coinciding with the building of Stonehenge at around 3000 BC. A few days previously I had been at Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Roman Army in the AD 120s when the Mayan civilisation still had another 1400 years to run before it was smashed by the Spanish colonisers. Dominant civilisations lasted for millennia back in the days before intercontinental travel became possible: they were able to develop and mature slowly and in relative isolation from each other. The contemplation of such long time-spans can be quite unsettling when you’re anxious about your own fleeting span.

I saw a lot of stonework, the tangible, durable legacy of these ancient civilisations. I haven’t been to Mexico to touch the ruined Mayan temples but I did lay a tentative finger on a large fragment of sculpture in the museum; I have stroked Stonehenge - back in the days before it was fenced off; and I patted the face of Hadrian’s Wall when I stopped for lunch last Thursday. I was attempting, in each case, to connect viscerally with the past by way of what remains. It’s a form of time-travelling which helps me to appreciate how people lived in ancient times, and it leaves me in awe at how hard they must have worked to construct their temples, walls and palaces.

Ancient civilisations pushed at the limits of what it was possible to build without the benefits of mechanisation and, in doing so, left us with impressive monuments, valuable information - and something else: objects were made by hand, generally according to the stylised pattern-books of the day, but every now and then we see the individual touches of the maker which reveal our common human traits. Their lives were different - more rigidly controlled and less free - despite which they found time for artistic expression. Perhaps mine is a quintessentially modern, first-world dilemma.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Prioritise to Maximise

This week I learned how to skin and fillet lemon sole: it's what you must do if you buy fish from the man who brings them in from the coast every Sunday morning. He sells them whole because they are fresh from his own boats and he doesn't have time to prepare them - or so he says. So I found a tutorial on You Tube, donned my apron and got to work. The job, from first incision to mopping the floor, took an hour: there were two fish. I cooked them simply, not bothering to make a fancy sauce, for, by this time, Shirley Conran's words "Life is too short to stuff a mushroom" were ringing in my ears.

It's possible, of course, that some people like to spend hours stuffing mushrooms, but the key to contentment in this respect is prioritisation. Assuming - as I do - that there is no afterlife, then it makes sense to utilise this life to maximum effect and not waste it fannying about. Planning is crucial in this respect: identify your objectives, prioritise them and focus on closure. Successful resolution depends on application - like the concert pianist who, when told by an admirer that she was lucky to be so talented retorted, "Luck has nothing to do with it. I practise eight hours a day".

I was pondering all this as I sat idly in a deckchair in the garden of the Manchester Art Gallery. Each time a tram rumbled past I heard my phone make an unfamiliar noise. When I investigated I saw that the phone was attempting to connect to the wi-fi networks in the passing trams. Should I be concerned about this or should I just let the machines resolve the matter between them?

How easy it is to get distracted from one's primary goals. It's some time since I last reviewed my own - I wrote them in a notebook which I then put away somewhere so safe that I now have to rely on memory; which is a handy justification for displacement activities. Remember that wizard wheeze to pay off the mortgage in five years by not spending money elsewhere? What a brilliant idea. But how many people manage to do that? You have to remain focussed and an effective way of doing that is to stick to a daily routine designed not to leave time for deviation. My own attempt at such rigour incorporates a daily walk to the gym for a brief fitness work-out. The gym itself holds no distractions but the walk can present challenges.

Take, for example the Furries - young people who dress up in animal costumes. Every Saturday they congregate at the bar next to the gym, spilling out onto the street to smoke and, if the weather's fine, gambolling in the small park across the way. I decided at last to ask a couple of them why they dressed so. They told me it was a form of artistic expression and that they adopt - or create - anthropomorphic personae so as to feel free from human behavioural constraints. I probed deeper to find out if it was just a passing fad but no, it's been an established movement since 1986. I wanted to ask whether aficionados eventually 'grew up' and moved on but I didn't want to cause offence and, anyway, the absence of older people spoke for itself.

Frankly, I suspect that Furries are wasting their time in escapist activities. I should have reminded them that "Pleasure may come from illusion, but happiness can come only of reality" and urged them - what with life being so short - to get real. But everyone's entitled to their own prioritisation - and, anyway, I began to feel uncomfortable talking to an oversized rabbit with a Lancashire accent.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Revelation in Rochdale

I met a couple of refugees yesterday - in Rochdale. I knew as soon as I saw the elderly-but-sprightly couple walking ahead of me that they were displaced persons. Unlike the workaday folk of Rochdale, they were smartly dressed in traditional summer clothes and accessorised - he with a Panama hat and walking stick, she with a pashmina and trendy rucksack - in an expeditionary sort of way.  They were obviously en route for the same destination as me - the tiny museum on Toad Lane comprising the original store of the Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society, established in 1844.

The small rooms encourage intimacy so we soon got talking and the pair told me their story. Originally from the area, they left - "as one did" - on account of the relentlessly grim industrial environment. They now live near Oxford (obviously) and had come back - despite the tedious journey - on a sort of pilgrimage to their roots. As if to justify their earlier migration he told me that "just walking through the town we noticed how tall we are compared with the locals" and she said "we saw at least two people with bow-legs. That's a symptom of rickets you know". Despite their escape they seemed pleased to be back, briefly basking in the glory of their ancestors' most famous achievement, the Co-Op. For it was here that the mighty co-operative movement was born, not the brainchild of an elite educated thinker, but of men who laboured in the midst of poverty, ignorance and extortion. They formed a mutual self-help society which traded fairly and paid a cash dividend to members.

170 years later poverty, ignorance and extortion are still commonplace - not just in Rochdale but all over the world. Despite the latter success of the co-operative movement and the efforts of many a philanthropist, the progress of humanity towards a more humane co-existence seems destined to be thwarted by our other instincts - greed and the desire for power. My "refugees" were at the lighter end of the scale - that which is more accurately described as migrant labour: they may have travelled some way culturally but their hardship was not severe. Elsewhere the problem is one of life or death for millions of individuals displaced by corrupt dictatorships, religious or ideologically fanatical militias and fighting over control of resources.

We've become accustomed to news footage of refugees languishing in far-away desert camps and, more recently, making desperate journeys across the Mediterranean to our favourite holiday resorts. The distance may have lulled us into thinking they are someone else's problem but now that we see them boarding the queue of lorries at Calais their plight presents us with an immediate one of our own: how best to help them. The humane thing to do is to accept responsibility for the welfare of these displaced people but, even if we were willing and able to do so, such action would amount to no more than first-aid. The root of the problem is social and economic instability in their home countries and, until this is resolved, there will be fugitives. People are more inclined to stay put if they have a satisfactory life.

The Rochdale Pioneers stood on the shoulders of others who strove to improve the lot of the masses. Chief among these was Robert Owen, hero of Utopian thinkers, who made a fortune in industry and spent it in the pursuit of his ideals. In 1841 he urged governments "in the interest of the human race" to promote "the well-being and happiness of every man, woman and child, without regard to their class, sect, party, country or colour". This is sound advice for tackling the causes of migration but his idea is not as well subscribed as the Co-Op's: perhaps if it incorporated a cash dividend it might be more popular?