Laundryette Revisited

“That’s a nice shirt”. This morning I went again to the Laundryette: sometimes it puzzles me how few clothes I own, and how much meaning they carry. This double-cuff shirt, for instance; I bought it years ago from a charity shop (British Red Cross, I think) in Bolton. The fabric is pale blue with a design of fine black lines, rather elegant…but on closer inspection the lines are actually small black dots laid upon a thin band of gleaming white fabric, which makes them seem to hover faintly. For Christmas I was given a pair of cufflinks – silver, with a line of tiny black beads along each one. How perfectly matched! But my gift came from a friend who, having never seen this garment, had no idea which design of jewellery would be most apt.

While waiting for the machines to run their dreary cycle, I began dipping into Justine, the novel by Lawrence Durrell. I can’t remember when I bought this book; I would never claim that it was one of my favourites, but the language and the ideas and the atmosphere of the story fill me with wonder. An occasional phrase from the narrator or one of the characters will spark off a chain of recollections, where the places I have been (and persons I’ve met) become confused with those I have only read about.

And then sometimes, looking around me I will be reminded of the times past I have spent at various Washeteriæ; at Oxford in 1989, reading ancient sci-fi paperbacks; at Castle Bromwich in 1993, reading Ramsay Campbell; at Derby in 1997, reading Back Street Heroes; at Tamworth in 2001, reading a biography of Liszt; and now at Swinton, reading ‘Take a Break’ magazine, or Durrell, or Foucault.

“That’s a nice shirt”. I remember now one occasion when I wore this particular item, at a conference a few years back, some exciting event about the arcane world of adhesive research. After the final lecture, I had met up with some of the other delegates in the hotel bar. One chap engaged me in conversation, and we had a very polite discussion about Chemical Engineering and the problems of business travel. After a minutes’ silence he laid a gentle finger on my sleeve and said “That’s a nice shirt”.

So few words; but how much meaning. We returned to his room, took a shower together and spent about an hour in bed.  Only later, when dressing, did I notice that we had flooded the bathroom floor. And now as I look out of the Laundryette window at the rain, and the eager spreading rings of light in the puddles, it all seems remote and unreal. The events in Justine, so potently described, seem to inhabit my memory more solidly than many of my own experiences.

Advertisements

Prometheus & Ganymede

The P-G Paradigm

 

In February 2010 I was studying ‘From Enlightenment to Romanticism’, an Open University Arts course which explored the transition which occurred between the years 1780 and 1830; instead of a clear change from the Classical (elegant, rational, polite) to the Romantic (emotional, transcendent, unkempt) there was a dramatic upheaval which saw bold developments in art, politics, science and religion.

As part of this course we were required to submit a 2000-word essay discussing the nature of Romantic works of Art: do these creations share a ‘common essence’, or do they simply have a family resemblance? The assignment was to be centred around two of the Goethe settings composed by Schubert, along with one other piece (which could have been a poem by Wordsworth or Byron, the Museum of John Soane, any of the late paintings of Delacroix or the Royal Pavilion at Brighton).

And naturally the two songs by Schubert which I most wanted to discuss were the settings of ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Ganymede’. Here we have two songs – same poet, same composer, same instruments and same cultural context (classical mythology) but which represent distinctly opposing views of the relationship between man and God. Ganymede was the devoted cupbearer (a delightfully coy expression) to Zeus on Olympus, while Prometheus was the ultimate rebel, a titan who stole fire from the Gods as a gift to Man.

In the P-G Paradigm we see the essence of Romanticism – the reckless, passionate pursuit of an ideal – but one of the characters is a slave to the existing order, while the other is utterly defiant. And yet the same musical idiom serves to embody their individual missions.

While pondering these ideas, I would sometimes walk from my landlord’s house up to the local branch of ASDA (the only place where I could receive a decent cellphone signal). It was early in the year, and the sky would be dark at six o’clock. Sometimes I would glimpse the moon through the bare trees, and think that this was the essence of the Romantic ideal.

And then I found myself thinking about the mystery of Schubert’s musical output. His Great C-major symphony, a huge orchestral creation, had as its slow movement a jaunty march where one would expect to find a sensuous cantabile. And Franz did know how to compose a slow movement – symphonies five and eight both have the most glorious, poignant melodies as their second movements. So why, in this tremendous manifesto, did he restrain his natural talent?

I can only think that it would unbalance the whole work if he had included a languorous, swooning rainbow of melody in this work. Indeed, the entire symphony seems to rely on small motivic cells being repeated  hundreds of times to generate an irresistible momentum, and this technique would not work in a section where the main tune was twenty bars long.

And of course, in producing a symphonic movement like this, with the barest variety, it becomes possible – as in a Japanese Noh drama – to create bold shifts in feeling with only subtle key changes. Having mastered the art of composing tender, poignant slow movements, Schubert wanted to move beyond, to the essence of music – ‘Heard melodies are sweet….’, where the plainest tunes can evoke a range of emotional responses.

House Prices

Tamworth, Staffordshire: 2000

Back in the year 2000, the UK property market was in a state of high excitement. The mood of optimism veered between buoyant and reckless, and in the Spring of that year an article appeared in ‘Your Mortgage’ magazine (a popular finance rag) which announced that:

“…due to an increase in commercial and residential demand, property prices in Tamworth are likely to see a 40 percent increase over the next 5 years…”

Of course the local press were delighted by this prediction, and promptly carried the news item on their front pages for the next few weeks. Indeed, so hasty were they to celebrate the good tidings that after a while, the headlines simply proclaimed ‘Tamworth House Prices to Jump 40%’.

Although I didn’t carry out a detailed survey of property prices in this period, I had my eye on a one-bedroomed flat which was on the market for £38000; six months later, this same property was being advertised for £51000.

And it seems that much of the demand for property was actually generated by families and firms twenty miles away in Birmingham. The sudden collapse of the Rover Car Company at Longbridge (Autumn 2000) caused a loss of consumer confidence and dented demand for houses in Tamworth.

But after all this fuss, the estate agents still managed to pocket their hefty bonus payments for selling overpriced houses; local journalists generated vast amounts of lazy coverage; and Tamworth remains a disappointed backwater with a castle, a cinema, and little else.

Cornwall, December 2009: 5 Hours by Train

No players decorate this football pitch; instead
Abandoned storage drums three-quarters full
Of rancid disappointment stand around
While dirty goalposts gather rust, condemned
To wait forever in this silent field.

Today at work I weighed some clouds; they nestled
In their fallen bowl
Subdued by accidental dreams
Instead of bursting rain or taking shape.

Last night my dreams were made of wood
They creaked and sang as all
The xylene vapours made their great escape.

Tomorrow night I’ll wait for you
On the corner of Radium Street again
Watched by a moonlit poster hanging torn
From the wall of an abandoned shop. The dust
In the window remembers me, though you do not.

The Photo of Dorian Gray

Like many of the rich and famous in Victorian England, Oscar Wilde was familiar with the camera; there are photographs of the great writer as a ten-year-old, as a teenager at Oxford, and on his deathbed. The process of photography must have appeared dramatic and mysterious to many people of that era, and I sometimes wonder why Wilde decided that it was to be a traditional oil-painting, rather than a photograph, that would cause the damnation of his youthful hero.

Perhaps Wilde’s friends were anxious that the new medium of photography would gradually drive painters out of business. He may have felt that painting was a genuine craft requiring skill and dedication and vision, whereas photography was mechanical and soulless; the long hours spent creating a picture in oils represent a kind of devotion, and the end product has a spiritual element. The photographic portrait, on the other hand, is an instant production carrying none of the emotional involvement, colour, or depth which characterise the finest oil paintings.

Of course Wilde makes no attempt to explain the mechanism behind this drama; young master Gray accidentally notices one day that his painting has deteriorated in a specific manner, and it dawns on him that he is now free to indulge in late nights without having to suffer from the tell-tale scars of loose behaviour. A lesser writer might have been tempted to concoct a tale of how Dorian’s Great-Grandfather once kidnapped an Indian princess, whose father was forced to pay a ransom for her release. Of course, the ransom would include fabulous gemstones, each carrying a mysterious curse so that subsequent owners would meet a horrible end. And the silver mounting for these jewels? Well, this would have been processed into the silver nitrate used in photographic plates – the very plates used to capture the perfect image of Dorian Gray, so that when the young man utters his wish to remain young, the curse takes effect and grants his wish. And condemns him to a life of cruelty, murder and despair.

Back in the late nineteenth century, there were probably many photographic studios which made use of inferior materials, and whose pictures would start to decay after a few weeks exposure to a normal household environment. Perhaps Wilde himself had heard about someone whose portrait had been horribly disfigured by this type of silent corrosion, and been prompted to compose the Faustian tale that we now know as The Picture of Dorian Gray.

New Management Gimmicks

Can you imagine what would happen if a company director called a staff meeting and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have decided that we are going to produce only poor-quality goods and deliver a carefree, slapdash level of customer service…”

Admittedly, the great Gerald Ratner achieved fame – and ruin – by declaring that his firm’s merchandise were ‘total ***p’ at a major business conference in the UK about twenty years ago.

But it is fairly common for managers to tell their workers (and customers) that ‘we are committed to quality and excellence’, as though this is a daring and orignal idea. It reminds me of those Indian Gurus whose devotees strip off and jump up and down, yelling the name of their chosen deity. I fear that one day I will arrive at work to find my colleagues standing on their chairs and chanting ‘Quality! Quality! Excellence! Excellence!’. It is for our customers – not ourselves – to declare that we have achieved quality and excellence, and this kind of reputation takes years of hard work and dedication.

Some managers have a weakness for business ideas from abroad, particularly Japan. The most popular flavour-of-the-month concepts appear to be ‘5S’ and ‘Kaizen’. Each of these has numerous cultural nuances which are usually lost in translation, which means that after a few weeks of application, the foreign business strategy has failed to deliver miraculous results and is quietly discarded.

The problems with applying these ideas may be due to the differences between British and Japanese society. In the East, great importance is attached to Loyalty and Harmony; loyalty to the Emperor, to one’s employer, to one’s family and finally to your own interests. By contrast (based on my limited experience of British industry), workers in the UK tend to view their employers with resentment and suspicion. ‘Why should I bother keeping a tidy workplace, when it will make life easier for other people? Why should I keep detailed records of the work process, when that will enable the boss to replace me if the fancy takes him?’ The prevalence of these attitudes makes it difficult for UK workers to fully embrace the ideas of 5S and Kaizen.

Another problem is the UK devotion to profit; the steady, continuous improvement advocated by Kaizen is eagerly supported by managers who imagine that it will lead to increased production and reduced overheads. Part of the benefit of Kaizen is that it changes the relationship between workers and their jobs; the process is improved, but so is the employee – a concept which fills most managers with alarm.