Friday, 18 November 2005

Birmingham. 16th November 2005.

Signs for businesses sometimes seem like one of the last outposts of expressive individualism. They can still give you the sense that there’s a story lurking. Coming out of Birmingham I saw one for a bed shop which said, Beds Direct; for courtesy, respect and manners. Laudable attributes they might be, but they aren’t obviously bed related.
I visited Birmingham without really touching the sides. The museum and gallery was the only thing that really left an impression. For major visiting exhibitions the gallery has a regular singles only night. I wonder if I emailed them to suggest they rename the evening Gallery Singletons they’d send me a cheque.

Saturday, 5 November 2005

Leeds. 3rd and 4th November 2005.

Some years back, left-leaning intellectuals were characterising call centres as the new sweatshops. Much as I would've quite fancied a job as a left-leaning intellectual, at the time I was working on a call centre dealing with housing benefit enquiries. After I'd been there a few years the department was restructured and the workers' duties expanded to the point where we would field calls about skip licences, disabled badges, and dead dogs in the street. Management saw these new areas of work as involving essentially interchangeable customer service functions. No knowledge was needed, only access to information which could be supplied by software. A new manager was recruited whose previous job was as a supervisor in McDonald’s.
It seems to me this sort of process has spread throughout the culture. We’ve moved to a standardised, tightly-scripted world where information has replaced knowledge. What I suppose I’m curious about on these trips away is whether there is still room for peculiarity and local oddity.

There is if Leeds is anything to go by. The Oxfam shop had a Goth section. I asked the assistant if this was a seasonal thing but was told it wasn’t. In Leeds, clearly, a goth is for life, not just for Halloween.
I located the B and B I'd booked with the help of a white haired woman in a pink outfit which made her look like a sweety mouse. She turned out to be one of the few people in Leeds capable of giving directions. The guest house added a fiver to its prices on the strength of calling itself a private hotel. Something about the manager’s unctiousness suggested suppressed vicousness; like a cross between Alan Bennett and Christopher Walken.
The décor was a frenzy of mismatched embossed wallpaper. It’s nice to know not everybody’s watching interior design TV shows. In 1980, in my first job on leaving school, I was press-ganged into taking a correspondence course run by the Builders’ Merchants Federation which involved memorising, among other things, the names of every pattern of embossed wallpaper on the market. Most of the muck coating the walls of the B an B would've been old hat even back then.

Killing time in my room before going out for the evening, I investigated the Corby trouser press. The back of the plug was hanging off. I considered asking at reception for a screwdriver, particularly as the towel rail had earlier come away in my hand, but I didn’t want to arouse suspicion and later get stiffed with an invoice for damages. So I improvised with a one pence piece.
Inspection revealed that the German for trouser press is hosenbugler, a name which suggests that blowing into trousers is somehow involved. Hitherto I’d assumed the Corby trouser press originated in Corby. I’d developed a half-baked notion it had formed part of the area’s renaissance after the collapse of the steel industry. Turns out the trouser press, or hosenbugler if you will, is actually made in Hampshire and was invented by John Corby. I was fascinated by the guidance diagrams on the device. The first panel showed a man with a briefcase, wearing crumpled trousers. The end panel showed, presumably, the same man with neatly pressed trousers. I couldn’t thinking this was over-egging the instructional pudding; surely the clue’s in the name - the English one at least. What the instructions didn’t mention was that it’s best to empty the trouser pockets before using the press. Alternatively, you can let gravity take its course and spend the next ten minutes retrieving loose change from every corner of the room.
I took a shower before going out for the night. A sign asked me to leave the bathroom as I’d like to find it. I thought, I'm only staying one night, I'm fuced if I'm going to plumb in a radiator.

On my first day I’d found it hard to get a handle on Leeds. It reminded me of Aberdeen in it's apparent lack of desire for outside approval. At first this irritated me. The place seemed inward looking. The woman at the tourist information centre had a map of the city glued to her desk, and it was facing towards her.
Maybe it's not the place's fault but mine. My prior knowledge of the place came from a mish mash of sources. The brochure the tourist office sent me followed the usual template with its obsessons with shopping, and the cursory mention of some museums as a sop to culture anoraks and families wanting to bore their children into passivity. On the coach up I’d read a zine by a bisexual woman from Leeds who worked on a phoneline for battered women and was involved in the remnants of the local riot grrl scene. This, while evidently a partial view, was much more the sort of thing I was expecting. As a teenager I was a fan of several Leeds based bands, like the Mekons, Delta Five and the Gang of Four. Most were ardent politicos, partly as a reaction against local National Front activity. As it turned out, most of the Gang of Four were only at university in Leeds and were actually from Sevenoaks. A few years ago I met a bloke whose dad used to play bridge with the guitarist’s mum.

Earlier in the day I’d visited the city’s main art gallery. In the gallery shop was a book about a local artist whose work had recently been discovered after a lifetime of painting fitted in around his day job as an accountant. Elderly now, now, he’d become frail, leaving his children no choice but to place him in sheltered housing. They found the cupboards and loft of the house he’d lived in most of his life were full of pictures. He’d never sold a painting. Subsequently he was taken on by a private gallery and widely feted.
The icing on the cake of the story would have been if I'd loved his work, but judging by the plates in the book I didn’t think he could paint for toffee. But his story pleased and stayed with me throughout the trip, an anomaly in a time when lightweights and loudmouths most often walk away with the goods. Mysterious how things are valued and made visible.

I went to a gig in the evening. Gigs outside London are often well attended by receptive audiences but tonight's show reminded me of the most depressing features of London’s toilet circuit.
Three bands were playing but there were never more than seven people in the audience, and most of them seemed to have stumbled in by mistake. Among them were three plump bald men in their fifties who looked like brothers who still lived with their mums and might appear in a patronising documentary on Channel Five.
One band was from Oslo. Hopefully they hadn’t come all that way especially. They didn’t really ‘get’ rock music, in the same sense that the French don’t really ‘get’ pop music. The headline band were from Glasgow so had a shorter trip home during which to cry their eyes out.
I knew from experience that none of the bands would have walked away with a penny. The music business pyramid has a very broad base – for every band you've heard of there are a thousand like these, slogging away.
Part of me pities them, but part of me's awestruck at the way they soldier on in the face of indifference. I feel that anybody who makes you wonder why they don’t just give up is usually worth a tip of the hat.

It may be the capacity crowd hoped for at the gig were still roaming the streets looking for the venue because Leeds seemed to be home to more than its share of the geographically challenged. Eight out of ten people I asked for directions didn't know where anything was. They'd struggle to point me towards streets that turned out to be yards away.
Part of the blame goes to the numerous branches of Subway clustered in the city centre. This chain, with its pricing structure more complex than Virgin Trains had three outlets within spitting distance. Two were almost within sight of each other. Disorientation was a natural result. I boarded a local bus and had a moment of panic when I saw a second Subway within minutes. I thought I’d fallen asleep and awoken back where I started having done a complete circuit of the city centre.
But mostly I think that the ability to give directions was a skill people were allowing to atrophy in the face of new technology. Waiting in a Yates’s near the coach station I saw two people go through the same dumb ritual within minutes. Each walked into the bar with a mobile clamped to their ear. Each stopped just inside the pub and briefly scanned the bar before giving up with a look of gormless bewilderment on their face, like sheep at the gate of a strange field. Clearly responding to something said by the person on the other end of the phone each turned through ninety degrees to where their friends sat three tables away, waving. If it’s reached the point where we can’t navigate a medium-sized pub without phoning for help, what hope is there?