Opinion & Thought

Patience not patients

I recently played my first gig with fiddle as my main instrument.

Ten years ago, I decided I really needed to play one of the core instruments of Irish music (fiddle, flute, pipes). It has been an enjoyable if challenging journey, and there’s still a long way to go. I mention this because, as I expected, it has taken a full decade to achieve that objective: it is a process that cannot be rushed (even though twenty years’ prior playing on other instruments had put me in good stead).

Good things come to those who wait, and enjoying the journey is definitely part of that process. But more generally, patience seems to be in short supply. People have become so used to having their every need met instantly, that the self-discipline needed to wait for something has simply evaporated. The speed of modern technology means that a delay of a few seconds can invoke huge frustration; gone are the days when one had to be patient for the day on which one’s favourite TV programme would be screened on a terrestrial channel. And one can acquire pretty much anything one wants at the click of a mouse, aided by the availability of instant credit rather than the need to save.

I see it in my students too, where one adverse mark can be enough to create major discouragement, and they don’t always seem convinced by my advice to take the long view. A lack of resilience is the result if you can’t cope when things don’t go according to plan. But as I tell them, there are some things in life that you just can’t hurry; development of the intellect is one, and playing a musical instrument is another.

One might argue that there is no virtue waiting, but I’m not so sure. Doing the time is part of the process: it is enriching in itself; learning to cope with the setback and frustrations is a valuable developmental skill. It also means that you develop a much deeper appreciation of something done genuinely well, than when it comes instantly, and you value it more when it finally arrives. Expertise is, almost by definition, something that doesn’t happen quickly. The problem is, without the resilience to accept this situation, the risk of instant discouragement grows to the point where one gives up at the first set-back – and by doing so, perhaps closes the door on a fruitful avenue of development forever.

I recently read a similar comment about the role of patience in the ongoing health crisis. Lockdowns are – supposedly – doing serious damage to people’s mental health. I suspect that a fair amount of the real problem is that people lack the skills to work through something that simply cannot be hurried.

Last summer, it was the inability to defer the gratification of summer holidays for a year that led to super-spreading events, and the rise in infection that we are now dealing with. Likewise, impatience to get the economy running again. In the long run, the effects of that impatience may be worse.

I can see the same thing happening over Christmas. We in the U.K. have spent several week in what seemed in any case to be a very half-hearted lockdown – but it seems as though the widespread refusal to accept that Christmas cannot be the same this year risks blowing any previous progress out of the water. Several leading scientists have said that they think the Christmas relaxation is a bad idea, in which they won’t personally be participating, and I tend to agree with them.

It is undoubtedly true that the Coronavirus emergency has created real hardship – but I am beginning to suspect that the real problem for many is simply an inability to WAIT for anything, even a safe social environment, before indulging.

The communal lack of patience risks creating another surge of patients.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Beware of the sharks.

They say some species of shark can never stop swimming. They require forward movement to force water through their gills and hence breathe. Even if apocryphal, the story has some useful applications.

Around five years ago, our local independent garden centre closed, leaving a large, increasingly derelict space on the edge of our small town, about half a mile from the centre. It was not long before pinstripe-clad fins were spotted in the area.

At about the same time, a group of local residents was coming together to create a Neighbourhood Plan under the then-government’s localism agenda. The aim of these things is to build local control (shark nets?) into the statutory planning procedure.

It was a long and complex job, that took several years to complete, and this week it appears that it has cleared its final hurdle before going out to local referendum. This is quite a coincidence, because it is the very same week when a building company has launched its marketing campaign for the fifty or so Noddy houses that it is currently building on the site of the former garden centre.

Throughout the intervening period, the Neighbourhood Plan team put considerable effort into engaging with first the land agents promoting the site, and then the building company that bought it. Their aspiration was to produce an architecturally innovative, environmentally-sustainable development which would steer the emphasis away from car-reliance and create a model for the area.

I had several meetings with one of the pinstripe sharks as part of this process, and to begin with, the noises were smoothly consensual. But then the site was sold on, and the building company that bought it refused to engage with the local group. The excuses why certain things “couldn’t be done” mounted.  As a result, we have been left with just another cloned housing estate, planned entirely around the car with, apparently, the blessing of the local authority’s planners who still require major consideration for multiple car-use in all new designs.

So much for localism; the Big Fish have been fed again – and will now go off to prey on some other unsuspecting community. It makes the glossy sales blurb for the development all the more infuriating since it trades heavily (and sometimes inaccurately) on the beauty, strong community and local amenities of our town, while at the same time having made no effort whatsoever to preserve or enhance or them, to say the very least.

Businesses are like sharks; it seems they must move ever onwards, otherwise they perish. They have no sense of fair play; once they have eaten the minnows, they move onto other fish. They have no sense of restraint; cash is their oxygen, and they care not how they acquire it, or how much damage they do in the process. Cynicism is just part of the plan; I doubt they appreciate irony, either.

Decades ago, this nation was seduced by the shark-like charms of private business. We had a succession of Prime Ministers who championed it over the allegedly hopeless public sector. We were encouraged to become shareholders as the nation’s assets were sold off.  I remember, even as a teenager, having reservations about this – but I could see that a nation in which the proceeds of such enterprises were returned to the populace through widespread, small dividends might just work, and accountability to such large numbers of shareholders could even be argued to be democracy of a sort.

It didn’t last. The sharks quickly ate all the smaller fish; today the small private shareholder is a rarity. Privatisation has turned out not to be a form of democratisation, but the opposite. Most of the fodder is funnelled towards, and then circulated amongst, the large financial predators that constitute the majority shareholders. It’s that – and the fact the successive governments have done little to restrain their appetites – that causes market cynicism such as that shown by the building company mentioned above.

We have another one circling; at least in this case, it did engage, and has made some nods towards local wishes. But it was still immediately apparent that it would ultimately do largely what it wanted, while perhaps throwing a minnows a sweetener or two. It only shifts it swim-forward focus, we were told, to the extent that the Law requires it to do so. Which is Not Much. Again, the democratic wishes of the local population will be over-ridden by the profit-lust of the corporate sharks.

This pattern repeats itself throughout businesses and across the nation; it is how they survive. But it is an inherently selfish motive, always seeking to tip the scales decisively in its own favour, while never letting the fixed grin shown to customers slip for a moment. Even small businesses do it – they will (nearly) always sell you more than you really want if they think they can get away with it. Caveat Emptor! Beware the teeth!

Covid 19 has stirred the water. The placid shoals of consumers on whom companies feed have largely fled to safer places. Yet “The Economy” has been enough of a consideration to compromise – for some, fatally – the health measures that needed to have been taken much sooner. Those sharks need to keep swimming, come what may.

But where there is no food, the sharks will eventually starve and fade. That is what is happening to many businesses right now. I find it hard to sympathise; during the plentiful years of consumerism, those sharks grew fat predating on the rest of us. They relentlessly championed their right to do so, both politically and through that bewitching consumer grin. They were the real consumers, not us.  Now that times are hard, I see no reason why we should listen to their new tune. If the sharks really want markets to be so Free, then they can’t complain when they make businesses fail, as they are doing in large numbers at present. That’s the Quid pro Quo.

The more adaptable will find new ways of surviving anyway, and those that can’t probably are no longer needed. Not that many don’t have a good amount of body fat to survive on for a while yet.

Others are doing much better from the new habits of the shoals: those who provide entertainment or hobby supplies; many in the shoals have themselves discovered resourcefulness that they never knew they had. All sorts of amazing, innovative and sometimes downright crazy things are becoming popular in the virtual universe. The small fish are coming back into their own.

So let’s play the Free Marketeers at their own game: those who can adapt should survive in this new world where the gratuitous consumption needed to feed their endless appetites is no longer society’s main preoccupation. Those who can’t, we just don’t need any more. No need to shed any more tears than they did as they relieved us of our hard-earned cash often in return for little of much value, while despoiling our communities and environments in the process. Things referred to euphemistically as “externalities”.

There is, however, one problem: those businesses also employ the majority of the shoals of worker-consumers. The lost companies do also represent lost livelihoods and careers, often shed in the most cursory of ways – and potentially much hardship. Unemployment is rising – but many are also finding new directions that they would never have expected only a year ago. We need to nourish these new enterprises – the online artists and musicians, the writers, comics and posters of amusing memes, the small online craft community, the 3D printers and the hobby-orientated suppliers. We need to find a way of remunerating them for their new and creative communal activities – and encourage many more to join them.

The point of an economy is to serve people’s needs, not the other way round. Those needs are now different.

So forget the whinges of the airlines – what use are bulk-fliers when few people need or want to fly? What use the huge stores that have struggled to maintain their supply chains when we most needed them? Let them wither; if demand returns in the future, rest assured, someone will spot a business opportunity and things will re-start. We just need to find a cost-effective way of cold-storing the assets in the meantime, if we can. Those bits of the old economy that are still needed will be re-born in a way dead people can’t be.

Free Markets are an ideological luxury: created not, as claimed, to benefit the many, but to allow a few to grow very rich minimally servicing them. If that were not so, they would engage in fewer anti-competitive practices where they feel they can get away with it. That is the nature of business: it is self-interested – and we are now living in a less self-interested age.

The problem is the incomes of those who lose their jobs. Yet we already have something of an answer: despite years of denial, it turns out that the government can, when the need arises, conjure almost limitless amounts of money out of thin air. It is only a construct after all – and one whose day is past. The need for income to support people in living reasonable lives is vastly out of kilter with the ability of any economy to generate and distribute the cash to provide it. That is why so many are in permanent deficit. And unrestrained markets actively funnel it in the wrong direction.

It has always struck me that expecting so many people to depend on the relentless swimming of what is in effect a glorified, unequal bartering system for their survival in the modern age is both primitive and insecure, not to mention environmentally unsustainable. Similar could be said for universal public services, whose quasi-commercial models are now also facing economic and behavioural contradictions that might not have existed under alternative models. Once again, the State has stepped in, because you simply cannot allow hospitals, schools and public transport not to operate just because they have become commercially unviable. There is a lesson there.

I don’t claim to have “The Answer” – but somehow, we need to decouple the supply of income to those who need it, from the shark-like behaviour of their (former) employers, swimming ever forward, irrespective of the damage they do with their huge income disparities, poor products, and social and environmental damage. There is supposedly a matter of balancing the books – but maybe that is a concept whose time has finally passed too? When companies are able, through technology, to make the mega-profits that many do, perhaps national debt is less of a problem than it might seem. We simply need to divert those flows to where they should arguably have been going all along. Perhaps the time of the Universal Basic Income has also come.

This not a call for a command-style economy, whose shortcomings are all too real (though the Chinese have perhaps shown to be less so than western mythology would believe). But traumatic events such as pandemics have prompted fundamental change in the past, and there is no reason why they should not do so again. Perhaps we simply need to accept that the sharks’ natural environment is gone forever – and put something more equitable in its place.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A parcel of rogues

English gold has been our bane:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

I wonder how history will judge the current time.

Maybe the song whose title has been circulating in my head will have something to do with it.

I know it a little from The Dubliners, and had always assumed that it was Irish, but a closer look shows that it is Scottish, attributed to Burns. The song excoriates those who signed the Act of Union in 1707, and the loss of Scottish independence that followed it. Plus ça change.

The Brexit experience seems to have sparked a bout of national soul-searching that shows little sign of abating; in effect, the arrival of Covid has done little more than divert the main channel of its expression, and perhaps blur the boundaries somewhat.

Quite where this will lead is anyone’s guess. No matter what the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations, a cultural chasm has been opened and it shows no sign of closing again. While those who have always had an outward-looking view seem to have doubled down on their Europeanism, the debate is not restricted to them. I think this is a good thing: as the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows, the worst thing about ignorance is your ignorance of your own. There’s only one way to change that.

The D-K Effect has a geographical expression too: people who are raised in insular places risk not only remaining insular, but also unaware of how insular they are. They tend to do it by over-estimating their own centrality and importance. That, to my mind, sums up the story of this nation, probably ever since sea levels rose 10,000 years ago.

The causes of Brexit go far deeper than the matters of the past decade and lie in the simple geographical fact the Britain is not part of a continent. How little this past-clinging nation has really changed was shown in the belief of a fair proportion of its population in its right and ability to ignore the rest of the world – except to the extent that it can contribute to further reinforcement of its own self-delusions. Such conservatism is another expression of insularity – in our case, turbo-charged by certain events in our past two centuries.

A feature of isolated groups around the world is that they tend to be inward-looking and self-referential. When the outside world does intrude, the reaction is typically one of suspicion, hostility, or disdain. It’s no different from an English speaker walking into a Welsh-language pub. A bombastic, passive-aggressive culture is often the result: a superiority-inferiority complex that wallows in its own failings, while simultaneously twisting them into virtues and thereby itself back into the Promised Land that it believed all along. We in all these islands excel at that. That, I think, is where Britain’s dark humour comes from: the hard-bitten cynicism of a place that deep down knows its reality is not a patch on its self-image.

Much of this nation’s historic relationship with the wider world can be easily read through this prism. The love-hate relationship with its neighbours that stretches back centuries may be more complex than popular opinion believes – but it is still an expression of a relationship that was founded on limited knowledge, just as it is now. People with literally and figuratively limited horizons simply find it more difficult to know how life might be different elsewhere. They have more difficulty just going to see what happens elsewhere – and Elsewhere finds it more difficult to bring itself to them. It was not unsurprising, when that outside world did intrude – during the Nineteenth Century when internationalism took root, the World Wars, and again with EU membership and its consequent migrations – that the national reaction would be inconsistent, unstable and extreme. Insularity and reactionary conservatism go together. When you are unused to dealing with people from Elsewhere you are not equipped to do so, and the line of least resistance is to dismiss them in one way or another.

And then we come to the Insularity Squared of Dunning-Kruger: worst of all, the insular nation was not able to see that the insularity was by definition its own, not the rest of the world’s. The 1950s headline Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off may be apocryphal, but it still betrays the traditional view of an insular nation. I suspect many in the UK remain in ignorance of the extent to which life elsewhere has become internationalised and globalised. International families and nation-hopping careers are no longer unusual. We, meanwhile, still largely see Abroad just as a place to holiday with better weather.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that this problematic worldview has been embedded in our national mindset to a depth that even those who consider themselves liberal might be duped by. I remember my own parents – who were hardly apologists for the British Establishment – expressing attitudes towards “continentals” and their countries that appear mildly shocking now. It was not meant to be incendiary; that was simply how the British views of the continent were, even in the 1970s, when memories of the War were fresher. But despite the emergence of an internationalised so-called “elite” in the country, I think far less has changed than such people are inclined to believe.

In my own case, it was only the opportunity to experience other European countries ‘differently’ that came from having useful language skills and friends who had moved abroad, that changed this beginning in the late 1980s – but even then I found it a long and difficult struggle to stop being intimidated by those places and their ways, even as I enjoyed discovering them. Had this chance not arisen, I suspect I would have continued with my childhood perspectives, as others in my family have done.

Whatever one’s conclusions, I think it is good that questions are at last being asked. If nothing else, Covid has made it harder to avoid comparisons between the nations of Europe and indeed elsewhere – just at the time when many Britons might have wanted to be doing just that. The raw statistics have made it harder than ever to argue that national differences are not significant, or to persist in the belief of the UK’s innate superiority: the same superiority that informed Boris Johnson’s early claim that the nation had a “world-class” response at the ready, and would survive virtually unscathed, as it always supposedly did.

World Class – the perpetual refrain of a nation that is now very often anything but; those that are, don’t need to keep reminding themselves. A natural disaster such as a virus can demolish the vanities of national exceptionalism like little else can.

My own objections to Brexit were born from a genuine belief in the commonality of people, most immediately within a shared Europe, where history and geography have always made it inevitable that we need to rub along somehow. But it was also born from my growing realisation of just how backward and inward looking this country still was, and a patriotic desire that Europeanism might change that. But for years, my views met most commonly with blankness, as though people simply didn’t know what I was going on about. The idea that Britain might no longer actually be Top Dog simply did not compute for those whose entire lives were still based around the contrary assumption.

Or maybe they just didn’t want to think about it. It is a view that many Brexiters still seem to struggle with, despite the tribulations of the last nine months.

If anything, my view has shifted more towards resignation. The one thing that might have made me accept Brexit would have been concrete evidence that this country is indeed building such a strong and enlightened future for itself that membership of the EU would clearly have been a handicap. That would not be impossible: see Switzerland. But I just can’t see it here. The hype is nothing more than that; the repressive undercurrents run just too deep to see, let alone change.

First amongst them is the received wisdom that society is inevitably hierarchical. I have gradually come to see that this assumption is, if not absent, then significantly weaker on the continent wherever stronger social democracy prevails. In fact, I suspect that the UK is one of the last developed nations to have such an entrenched, subconscious and hypercompetitive preoccupation with Status and Pecking-Order as it still does; many others now define themselves absolutely to the contrary.

It is so entrenched that even now most don’t see it; but it is socially destructive all the same. It is there in the promotion of high-end goods on their “exclusivity” and the emphasis on the status that wealth supposedly brings. And in the notion that getting ‘one up’ is both acceptable and desirable. You don’t need to worry so much about social mobility if society is reasonably equal in the first place.

I see it on my regular cycle rides into the Essex countryside, which have revealed any number of luxury modernised farmhouses and former barns tucked away in the glacial folds, where the Very Wealthy are buying themselves seclusion, away from the towns and villages that are fighting a losing battle against swamping by the future-slums of the volume Noddy-house builders. I wonder at the lives lived in such places: a mere 50 miles from London, perhaps simply second homes, the children neatly tucked away in private schools. No need to interact with the plebs of Regular Britain at all.

But it’s only what the higher orders have done in this country for centuries. In a way, I almost don’t blame them – for Regular British life is a pretty crass affair, not something to aspire to. “Civilising” forces – such as a respect for learning, and access to higher culture, are largely absent from mainstream British life, drowned out by the lowbrow, the cheap and the blatantly commercial to an extent that I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere.

Historically, this country produced few cultural giants of the stature of the French painters, Italian sculptors, or German composers; only in literature do we come close. We have never valued abstraction or philosophical thought – the basis of idealism for a higher life. (Such as we produced was, ironically, mostly Scottish). We hark back to the Victorians – yet much of their legacy, while grand, is largely derivative and backward looking, a manifestation in stone of that same social authoritarianism that has kept so much of the nation down. It took French abstraction and German/Scandinavian modernism to produce genuinely new templates for the present age – and once again, Britain struggled to cope with change. Its elites made sure of that.

It can be argued that there has been a renaissance in Art, Food, Architecture and Fashion in the past few decades, but it has largely (once again) been cornered by the new-generation elite – educated and affluent; just a new way of demarcating social status rather than anything genuinely democratising. There are precious few signs of its widely enriching the towns and lives of provincial Britain, let alone the poorer parts. Except where the new rich in-comers are pricing many locals out of their own homes. It became symbolic of a way of life that is alien to the majority of British people.

Why wouldn’t those of more discriminating tastes want to distance themselves from such a morass? There seems little alternative – but this is part of the problem, not the solution. By monopolising the best, all you do is coarsen the rest. I see less to flee from in more equal countries.

You only need look at the political climate, or the responses to Covid to see that different values and perspectives are at work in different places. In this country’s case, it is the desire of those at the top of that still-enduring hierarchy to wash their hands of the rest (or at least, patronise them) – as their breeding suggests they are entitled to do – that actually perpetuates the wider crassness. It is by democratising the nation’s assets that people can be levelled up – to use the Prime Minister’s favourite phrase. And yet that is the last thing instinct makes him and his kind able to understand, let along implement. They just can’t get over their traditional sense of entitlement – and over generations, institutionalised deference has polluted the entire nation’s view of itself.

Brexit and Covid are pushing this nation further into a mire of its own making. We still seem unable to see that the only workable ways forward are communal and egalitarian: new models, not clinging to the old. Shameless individualism can be exploited by the virus as well as the political system. We still don’t ‘get’ that the underlying problem is the way this country is fundamentally configured.

Its solutions to both are largely predicated on the values and worldviews of its past; just as was the way it has functioned for decades. It is there in the way its adversarial political system dismisses any other than a single dominant world-view; in the condescension of its leaders, and their failure to cope with the consensual pluralism of the EU27, which even now is more concerned with finding an accommodation than rattling sabres. Its only answers are “more of the same” – the criticism I first made of this country’s inability to become truly forward- and outward-looking several decades ago.

Alternative models that have successfully addressed at least some of these issues have been available just a few tens of miles offshore for the past fifty years. But we have only ever been intent on seeing the wideness of the Channel, not the opposite. And so intent were – and are – we in our belief that there is no other way, even an ocean-crossing virus has yet to make us think again.

It’s easy to blame the nation’s current predicament on this or that sub-group. But in truth it is the whole culture – all of us – that is the problem. From the coarsened urban masses, through the newly-affluent in their barns, to the old elites (whose influence is still stronger than many realise – only less visible) – to our new generation of bombastic, wealth-obsessed ‘leaders’ with their empty nationalism. The Scots (who once made common cause with the French) might sense a particular irony – and the continentals themselves I suspect now see it in a clearer way that we still can’t, now that we have shattered the stereotypes.

In reality, we’re all part of it: such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Crocodile tears

Chester Barrie was a British men’s tailoring company founded in 1935. It produced semi-bespoke clothing with a shop on Savile Row. I first encountered the brand via its concession in Manchester’s House of Fraser in 2014. While I’m not keen on starchy, traditional British menswear, I was pleased to see that the brand was innovative, clearly taking some of its lead from Italy and turning out several seasons of nicely styled, modern clothes. At last, I felt, here is a company that is doing something other than rest on its traditional laurels, which might even hold a light to what is still done so well in Italy. It did well enough to become official dresser to, for example, Leicester Tigers rugby team.

CB’s usual offerings were well out of my price range – but I was delighted when it opened an outlet shop a mere handful of miles from my home a year or two later. Given the precipice off which my income fell in 2016, that shop has done a sterling job of keeping me dressed for minimal outlay – and deflected the need to fall back on the dullness of the usual High Street stores, whose men’s department heave with piles of over-priced, low quality cloned jeans, chinos and trainers.

And then it disappeared. It turns out that CB was bought and sold several times, before being acquired by the Japanese Itochu Corporation in 2017. In early 2020, the decision was made to close the brand, including its concessions, outlet shops, and the Savile Row flagship store. A piece of recent British tailoring history summarily executed, to suit the accounting bottom line of a distant corporation. I struggle to imagine this happening in Italy, where I suspect veneration of such a company’s heritage would overridden short term profitability issues. It would probably still be family-owned in the first place.

This has become the story of much of the British economy, particularly that of the ‘High Street’. For decades, a process has been underway whereby profitable smaller companies were absorbed by larger ones, until huge corporations came to own vast swathes of retail and other activity. Delve into the ownership of almost any well-known British brand, and you are likely to find that it ultimately funnels money towards one or other of the large corporations, most insidiously of all, Venture Capital companies and hedge funds, whose speciality is the aggressive acquisition of companies which are often asset stripped and disposed of, making a (very) few – and mostly anonymous – individuals very rich in the process.

Another classic example was Costa Coffee, which began as a small concern in London in 1971, before being bought out by Whitbread in 1995, and being being sold again in 2019 to the Coca Cola Corporation for £3.9 billion. In the meantime, its character has changed out of all recognition, from the small Italian-style coffee bar I first visited at Liverpool St station in the late 1980s, to just another themed chain, albeit one whose coffee still isn’t bad.

We can add other venerables to the list – such as Pizza Express, Carluccio’s – not to mention the other sectors that such corporations now operate in, perhaps most controversially private care home provision.

I suppose one could argue that this is just the way in which advanced economies are developing. It is clearly not just a British phenomenon – and I might be just about willing to accept that this happens, were it not for the effects on the companies – and the rest of us – in the meantime.

Those large corporations do not buy smaller outfits out of sentiment: their one and only concern is maximising their profit, often only in the short term. We tend to see a change of direction – almost always towards the dumbed-down mass market, because that is where maximum revenue lies. Products are homogenised and mass-production processes ramped up – nearly always at the expense of distinctiveness and quality – while at the same time, tried and tested favourites are jettisoned in favour of trendy gimmicks. There is no quality, and there is no continuity.

And where this is not possible, as in the case of Chester Barrie, it seems that the bones are picked clean, and the company jettisoned – with no concern for history, employees or long-standing customers – let alone the loss of diversity in the market place.

In the process, our towns and cities have become standardised clones, their streets filled with the same old chains pumping out retail therapy, but whose real purpose is to channel income from the very many, towards the very few who stand at the top of such corporations. Let’s not pretend that the employees of such chains benefit very greatly from their presence – they are often unskilled and low-paid – and eminently disposable, unlike those who worked in more specialist trades.

As I said, this is certainly not just a British phenomenon – but it still seems that the impact of the trend varies from place to place. There seem to be, for example, far fewer national or international chains on the streets of Italy or France – even, I think, Germany. Clothing retail in particular seems still in the hands of many small boutiques, and there are many individual restaurants, even though the small eateries of France are known to be under threat.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth in recent months, at the impact of CV19 on towns’ economies. Having ventured into my nearest town for the first time in months a week or so ago, I did not notice much change – but it is possible that the worst is still to come. I even read someone recently, bewailing the loss of the “traditional British chain store”. What was very noticeable, however, from the branding on the Covid health notices, was just how much of the town centre is now privately owned.

For several decades, these giants have bled local businesses dry, and turned our towns from civic centres into semi-privatised conveyor belts for shovelling cash from the not-very-well-off many, to the very-well-off few. They have taken aggressive advantage of a neo-liberal economic climate, whereby the government of the country failed to intervene in the market despite the inequalities that were being created. So far as I am concerned, they should not squeal when liberal free market conditions, whether Covid-related or otherwise, turn against them. What we do need, however, is protection from the adverse consequences of their behaviour, which our government mostly declines to provide.

I am of course concerned for those whose jobs will be just more collateral damage as the corporations pull in their belts – and there is clearly a job to be done to figure out how to fill what may end up as  a vast over-provision of urban retail space. But I am much more concerned about how the small and local businesses are faring – those who offer personal service, often distinctive and better-quality products, and earnings that flow back into local economies rather than distant HQs.

So forgive me if I fail to pass anything more than crocodile tears for the passing of these ‘household names’, the majority of which have not, and do not, serve us anywhere near as well as they claim, but which have been a major cause of damage to both local distinctiveness and real choice for consumers. Companies like Chester Barrie are a real loss, though – but largely avoidable. In the meantime, internet shopping provides an escape from the tyranny of the high street giants, and for this reason I use it shamelessly, to support small, distinctive and independent retailers wherever they may be. We can do better in future.

Uncategorized

U turn if you want…

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I don’t normally cross-post between my blogs – but I feel these issues really need a wide audience. I know some have been following this issue here. This is my last word here on the issue…

My comments about the grades fiasco precipitated if not a torrent of correspondence, then certainly more than usual. Most disagreed with my position. Yet here we are, with the desired shift to centre-assessed grades, a.k.a. teacher predictions – and lo, we have the predicted wave of grade inflation, worse at G.C.S.E. than ‘A’ level. Sixth forms now face the prospect of larger numbers of students on courses, who have miraculously become more intelligent overnight than their predecessors. Or maybe they will just struggle with the courses more…

Meanwhile, universities face the problem of accommodating increased numbers of students, while trying to maintain Covid-related safety. There is no guarantee that all those students are suited to higher education, and they may have negative experiences as a result. But the profession has got its way: more indeed did get prizes. Just don’t forget that that includes the teachers.

Conversations in the past few days with colleagues of decades’ standing, in whose views I have much confidence, agreed that schools tend to err optimistically with grade predictions – except perhaps with students who have been difficult, which is hardly an objective assessment of achievement either. Teachers are only human; the trouble is that they are now solidly invested in claiming otherwise.

A cursory look at corporate law will show that a company’s prime responsibility is to its shareholders. Customers and employees are merely the mechanism by which dividends are created, and it is by no means guaranteed that all companies will look after their machinery well. This is why self-preservation becomes important. It is worth saying again: the real culprit here is the transactional nature of almost everything in British society, the weaknesses of which Covid has unwittingly exposed. It is also worth repeating that this is not an inevitable situation, but one created by forty years of successive government policy. It has restructured Health and Education, and pretty much everything else, along quasi-market lines while encouraging people to think of themselves as customers rather than citizens.

The difference is important: customers are primarily self-interested, whereas citizens are less so. Customers have little long-term interest in a relationship; citizens more so. In that situation, the most aggressive players nearly always win; there is no room for sentiment.

I think it was this that also underpinned my being roundly criticised by a group of parents on a local parent-teacher social media group some days ago – for having the temerity to suggest that they might consider accustoming their children to wearing masks in case the requirements change as the number of Covid infections rises again. For my attempt at considered professional support, I was told this was “none of my business”. This is a typical customer-type reaction: very ‘interested’ when there is something to gain, and not at all when there isn’t. (A startling spin-off of this encounter was the almost total lack of expressed concern for the well-being of the teachers. Again, why would you care about the bod who served your burger, once you’ve bought it?)

The problem with such vested interests is that they are both short-termist and potentially deceitful. Feigning interest is just another ploy in the marketplace ‘game’, as is disowning vested ones. And short-term interests nearly always win out over longer term ones, as instant gratification usually trumps the deferred type – ably assisted of course by hype.

What’s all this got to do with exam results? Well, to my mind, this is exactly how the education system now works. It explains why schools are so desperate to maintain statistics (their share price). It explains why universities now have huge marketing departments with glossy brochures, appealing as much to lifestyle as study – and then allocate places based on internal economics rather than academic potential.

It explains why exam results have become so important in the first place: they have become a currency in their own right. And as in any inflationary situation, what ‘backs’ that currency has become less important than the amount of it you hold in the first place. The fact that predicted grades are little more than educated guesses matters little when you can – nearly – treat them as hard currency in their own right. Even what students learn has now become just the fuel of that system, rather than anything that might be useful or interesting in its own right. Why else would so many teachers balk at even passing coverage of things that are “not on the syllabus”?

And it explains why teachers have taken to squealing so loudly where they perceive “injustices”. I’m not suggesting for a moment that don’t believe they are genuinely concerned for their students’ well-being, and it is not they who chose to operate in this system. But I think the collective professional mindset has now been so utterly saturated by this economised, transactional way of thinking that many can no longer see beyond it.

Advertising is a means of maximising your capital in such a system – which is why professional virtue-signalling is also so widespread. It results, too, in the frenzied claims about the “damage” done by lost classroom time – despite emerging evidence from the past months that high-pressure classroom regimes may be doing even more harm to some. Whose interests are we really serving here?

Many of the concerns I expressed in my previous posts have rapidly become reality. We now have students in up-coming years complaining that they will be disadvantaged when competing with those whose grades have been inflated. We have over-supply of students to the higher phases. Those given grades this year will always know that (through no fault of their own) they were never properly earned and are therefore eternally questionable as a real validation of ability. Inflating the grades will only have made all this worse.

Teachers have become proxy consumers of exam results – why would they not, when their annual appraisal and perhaps pay rests so heavily on them? This perhaps explains the satisfaction being expressed at the U-turn, despite the many other problems that will result, and the routine decrying of other views on the matter.

The answer to the unfair competition problem? Bump up the results even higher next year. Just to make sure the situation isn’t “unfair”. Just give prizes to everyone – then they will all be happy. The unfettered market mentality never did take a long view.

If I have a criticism of the teaching profession, it is not for protecting its own interests: that is in effect what it has been increasingly forced to do, jettisoning its impartiality on the way. But denying it is disingenuous; arguing for solutions that are, at very least little better than the original problem is irresponsible. All the more so when self-interest may be a significant factor.

Those in the profession should be taking a much harder look at this situation and reflecting on where they stand. There are still plenty of teachers, I believe, who see the situation and its complexity for what it is: who are still motivated by genuine educational purposes, and who understand that real student progress requires a significant degree of teacher detachment. They would still have argued for the recent issue to be revisited – though from another perspective. But they are not the ones who tend to be heard.

This is why, in my opinion, it is essential to de-couple teachers’ professional interests from those of their pupils once again. While teachers’ own interests align so closely with those of their pupils, they will never retain adequate professional detachment. The system we have has forced this alignment – and it has caused the neglect of the other responsibility of teachers: to be gatekeepers to educational success, to police standards even when that requires hard decisions to be made and disappointing outcomes to be accepted (so long as they are rigorous). Not just to be unthinking cheerleaders for young people come what may: the profession also has bigger responsibilities. We have been forced to see the exam boards and regulators as competitors, even the Enemy – when the profession should actually be supporting their work in calibrating the system as accurately as possible – and ensuring that educational rather than transactional values prevail.

In the past, exam grades were norm referenced – in effect an algorithm. It meant that a constant percentage of the cohort received a certain grade each year, and the grade boundaries were shifted – marginally – to achieve this. While this had its own drawbacks, it did allow for annual variations in for example exam difficulty. G.C.S.E.s replaced this with criterion referencing: anyone who hit a specified level received the corresponding grade, with no cap on numbers. Superficially this might seem fairer, but – coupled with publishing the criteria criteria – it was a huge driver of teaching to the test, and the transactional scrum that has come from the resultant grade inflation. I am not surprised that governments have tried to rein this in, even though they were its instigator.

In a sense, education has always been a marketplace: access always was a matter of supply and demand, as was the allocation of qualifications. It is simply a fact of life that previously-scarce resources become devalued if they are given free to all. But at least this was governed by academic principles, rather than the merely consumerist self-gratification that fuelled the recent furore.

The only way to remove this is to get rid of the competitive aspect of the education system entirely. That is still the situation in some countries – but it comes with its own set of difficult choices, of course. When the crunch came, it was the highly-economised model of education was the one that was found most wanting.

Uncategorized

Unjust deserts?

It is noticeable that today, even that scourge of right-wing governments, The Observer, accepts what I suggested in my earlier comments, that the parameters used in the exam-prediction algorithm made theoretical sense.

But it is also now clearer that something went desperately wrong with the way in which the algorithm worked or was applied. One would have thought that there had been adequate time for the Government to test this to destruction before the grades were announced – but it seems not. Such things are so far beyond my expertise that I cannot really comment further.

My comments were not intended to justify the outcome we have seen, which clearly needs further investigation and (probably) amendment. But I stand by my other observations, namely that a lot of the current outcry is not so much to do with the imperfection of the algorithm as the indignation that teachers were not “sufficiently listened to”. We need to rise above this: moral indignation – whether politically motivated or not – is neither the right nor the best approach.

The claims that teacher predicted grades should have been virtually the only criterion still do not hold water. As I pointed out, these grades are very often wrong; I have now seen a figure of 79% inaccuracy cited in The Observer. That does not surprise me: if the teaching profession is claiming that it is somehow immune to Optimism Bias, then it is certainly and miraculously the only part of the human species that is. That is not to suggest that there is deliberate distortion going on, but to deny that teachers are subject to such things is disingenuous, and in my view, this alone justified other factors being taken into consideration.

Even in these days of publicly-available marks schemes and exam hot-housing, school-reported results are only ever a less-than-impartial interpretation of what the exam board is looking for. I know from my own experience, that there were times when one used grades “elastically” for motivational or ‘stretch’ purposes, particularly near grade thresholds.

It is true that one does acquire a certain “gut feeling” for students’ abilities – but it is not reasonable to claim it is much more than that – nor that horse-trading does not go on between teachers over formal predictions. Nor it is untrue that knowledge of students’ target grades can distort the predictions teachers make. Being human, it can hardly be otherwise, no matter how hard we try – especially when we know how high the stakes can be. Equally, there are plenty of reasons for the grades that schools formally predict, for optimism bias to be a significant factor. Yet there is no acknowledgement of this fact.

The language that is used in education about such things also troubles me greatly. In particular, the use of the word “deserve”. From a moral perspective, Desert is a difficult matter. What one (supposedly) deserves at any given moment is deeply imponderable. I think it is dangerous for teachers to talk about what their pupils “deserve” – most of all when addressing the pupils themselves. And particularly so in the casual sense that is often used, implying that all young people deserve to succeed simply for being themselves, for being young, or for being students. What about young people who made no effort whatsoever? Do they “deserve” to be included in such blanket statements – because I’m pretty sure this is what such phrases imply? What about those who were disruptive in school or who even commit criminal acts? Do they deserve the same outcomes? Do people of unequal ability “deserve” to be given the same rewards, even though that would effectively devalue them for everyone? This is a word that teachers would wisely avoid.

Likewise, I have seen it said that these are “not the results we would want our young people to have received”. Well no, of course not. Superficially, we would all like prizes for all – but that is not to say it is a wise policy. And this again betrays a critical conflation of the desired outcomes with the actual ones, even accepting the deep flaws in what has happened. No exam ever delivered what all pupils and all teachers wanted. The answer is not to capitulate and just award teacher-predictions to all, as one Conservative M.P. has apparently suggested. The matter is more complex than that, even allowing for the difficulties caused during the last academic year.

As I said before, the aim should be to achieve maximum consistency with what has gone before – and what will come after. The “potential” that so many teachers seem to feel has not been recognised is not the same as actual exam performance, when many other factors have always come into play, that meant the results were not someone’s maximum potential. Like it or not, that has always been part of the exam “game” – and we have, as a nation, chosen to set disproportionate store by that game.

The trouble is, this is opening a Pandora’s Box: which limiting factors are admissible and which are not? What is an acceptable time threshold for mitigating circumstances? The fact that someone was feeling ill in the exam room? (Possibly). Issues like dyslexia? (often – but I am far from convinced this is never abused). Parental maltreatment as an infant? The fact that someone had broken up with their boy/girl friend the day before? Or that the weather was bad? Where does one stop? My own exam results were lower that what I think reasonably in hindsight reflected my “true potential” – but that deficit was largely due to poor choice of subjects and normal teenage turbulence and disaffection in the years before them. Why should that not be factored in too? Not everyone experiences them identically. Nor should we be swept away by claims that failure to compensate for these things inevitable “wrecks lives” That, given the blanket certainty with which it is cited, is just brinkmanship, more foot-stamping.

And this is before we consider those yet to come. If this year’s students are given an easy ride, how will it reflect on coming years’ students who do not receive such favours? They will eventually all be operating in the same higher education and jobs markets. Why should one cohort be given an extra-easy ride? They didn’t “deserve” the disruption from Covid (at least no more than the entire human race might) – but following cohorts don’t deserve to be put at a disadvantage as a result, either.

Some have observed that my earlier comments were unsympathetic. They were not meant as such – but I see no reason why the correct response to the current situation is indulgence. There are enough bona fide reasons not to trust teacher predictions 100% – without that implying acceptance of the shambles we have now.

This is why we must decouple teachers’ interests from those of their pupils. I don’t think it does the teaching profession any favours to be as invested as it is in a partisan stance: in the quest for fairness, I don’t believe that positive bias is any more acceptable than negative. This is perfectly compatible with wanting the best for your pupils because achieving it by misrepresentation is not the answer. I know for a fact that a few generations ago – when my parents taught – the witch-hunts that can follow from a teacher producing low exam results in a particular year did not happen. Again, I am not justifying repeated under-performance: this is where real individual professional responsibility needs to come in (though this, too, has been removed). But it needs to remove the reasons teachers have for partisan talking-up of specific student outcomes. Professionals need more detachment than that, for their students’ greater good, let alone their own.

The real problem is the simplistic, mechanical and consumerism-driven model of education that we now have. On the one hand, this has led people to believe that there is a simple causal relationship between what a teacher does with their students and the results those students achieve, as there is between a business and a customer. It is not so: there are many more factors involved than that, some which are neither predictable, nor in a teacher’s gift.

On the other, it has led people to cry foul when they don’t then receive what they feel they “deserve” as consumers of the education system – whether in the wider perspective it is justified or not. In education, the customer is not always right. Furthermore, the spectacle of teachers making such complaints is a significant factor in students and their parents following suit, whether well-considered or not.

I’m not suggesting there should not be reasonable grounds for appeal, as there have always been; indeed probably more so this year than usual. But it is also true that schools and teachers have increasingly used that procedure to “game” the system for furthering their own vested interests. I know of some schools where appealing grades has been pretty much an automatic annual policy in order to improve the statistics. This is not what I understand by professionalism.

This is not to imply that teachers are bent. The vast majority act in good faith – but whether it is wise or appropriate is a different matter. The recent spectacle has come close to an unedifying stamping of the feet. Professionalism should raise people above that, even though the partisanship has, I accept, been forced on teachers by the processes by which they are now appraised.

I repeat: this is why we desperately need to return teachers to a position where professional disinterest is possible. That is all I have been advocating in my posts.

Indulging in metaphorical foot-stamping, while repeatedly denying the validity of points such as those raised above, is disingenuous, and does the teaching profession no favours. Rather than reducing the matter to simplistic shouting, we should be providing a more rational, nuanced and disinterested narrative for the sake of all concerned. Where there is cause for concern, it should be advanced primarily through reasoned argument, rather than subjective matters of “fairness”. Teachers of course wish for the best for their students – but that is not the same as crying foul every time they don’t get what they want.

That this seems to be neither seen, nor perhaps possible, is said in sadness not anger.

Incidentally, I have seen no discussion, either, of the legal right of people to request decisions made by algorithm be reassessed by a human being. That ought to settle it.

Opinion & Thought

Prizes for all?

exam

The fuss over this year’s exam results was probably inevitable. I suspect that those with political axes to grind spotted a sitting target a long time ago, and they were not about to give up the opportunity to horsewhip the government over it lightly.

I have no desire whatsoever to provide excuses for the shower that currently passes for the British government – but their biggest error in this case is probably yet to come – by performing a U-turn on the grades just issued.

There was never going to be an easy way of accurately replicating the outcomes of the exam hall. It seems to me that using an algorithm that considered:

• a school’s past performance profile
• students’ previous work
• as well as their teachers’ predictions

was about as good a mix as was likely to be possible. The fact that it has not delivered prizes for all should be seen as a strength not a weakness – because the normal exam system does not do that either. That is not intended to suggest that it was perfect, nor that there are no errors.

Many of those shouting loudest at the moment seem to be claiming that teacher predictions should have been pretty much the sole determinant of outcomes. Yet these are notoriously unreliable, as has been shown over many years. Mine often were. It may be true that teachers know their students’ potential better than anyone else – but that has never been the only factor affecting exam outcomes, and so if the aim is consistency with past years, it should not be the case now either. Potential is prone to wishful thinking.

It is not as though teachers or schools these days have no vested interest in talking-up their students’ exam results – both individual and institutional reputations rest on them. (Indeed, it was my insistence on reporting the truth about an apparently under-achieving class rather than the unsubstantiated grades that my superiors wanted to see, that contributed to my premature exit from the profession some years ago). I know enough about pressures on teachers elsewhere for this not just to be an exception; therefore, I am wary about heavy reliance on teacher predictions, and I think the exam boards were wise to be so too. The pressures to talk grades up are just too great.

But there are bigger issues here.

There is an enduring belief in large parts of the teaching profession that the testing system should deliver ‘prizes for all’ – without any apparent recognition that doing so would simply devalue them, as all forms of inflation tend to do. Focusing on positive achievement is all very laudable – but success is meaningless without the possibility of failure.

That is part of life’s lesson that education really needs to deliver. Talk about what our “young people deserve” is often based very little on reasoning about what that really means (especially for people who have not lived long enough to “deserve” much at all) – and much more on indulgent wishful thinking by adults whose own supposed success depends vicariously upon it. Being charitable, people often arrive at this world-view from a genuine desire to rectify the legacy of social disadvantage – but dispensing extra-cheap prizes for all is not the way to do it.

Young people “deserve” to learn that we do not always win in life – and that they cannot expect all of life’s goodies to drop into their laps just for breathing fresh air. That, I suspect, is by far a more widespread – and more insidious – delusion than the opposite.

I should qualify that by saying that I do support trying to find the best in all people – but that is not the same as giving them all high academic qualifications. The fact that the system we have largely focuses on this at the expense of all else, is the problem here. But trying to use the exam system (and indeed education as a whole) primarily as a form of social engineering has always seemed to me a Pandora’s Box of the worst kind. Not least, it has led to the widespread conflation of “education” with the process and outcomes of prepping children to jump though a certain sort of performance hoop; their chances of success at that is what those having hysterics right now are really worried about, not the wider educational impact.

The only way to escape this minefield is to keep the examining system rigorously independent: assess all purely on their academic potential if you will, and do not be swayed by any other considerations. But also providing much better routes for the non-academic to excel in other fields.

The biggest problem of all, however, is the own goal that we will score by the way this issue is repeatedly covered in society more widely. The cries of indignation are also just another expression of the entitlement complex that causes people not to wear masks or socially distance if they think they don’t want to, those who habitually claim they have been hard done-by. The same complex that cries “it’s not fair” and stamps its foot every time it doesn’t get what it (thinks it) wants.

I am heartily sick of hearing that the exam issue – and indeed Covid 19 – has “destroyed” young people’s lives. There are certain educational problems that it has created, most importantly for those who were at the critical stage of basic skills such as literacy, for whose early-years development time does not wait. Likewise, the logistical problems for those about to enter a new phase of education are real – but they are just that – logistical, not intellectual. For almost everyone else, this has been a brief disruption that amounts to no more than a few percent of even young lives.

The most hysterical shouting has been about “wrecking young people’s mental health”. This from a society that, until it became a buzz-topic, cared almost not at all about that issue; this from a system that as I have seen at first hand, does plenty itself to damage young people’s mental health, through the pressure that comes from the anxiety-inducing hype that I mentioned earlier. I have seen far too many young people whose pleasure in learning was destroyed by the endless targets and pressure to “perform”; the latest is my talented niece. I have seen even high achievers rendered nervous wrecks by the stakes the felt they were playing for – all of which is the product of the system that our societal attitudes – not its young people, nor the ‘crisis’ – have created.

The peak of this stupidity is the hysteria with which the adult world – particularly the media, but many others too (including teachers) – rushes around discussing the matter. If there is one thing pretty much guaranteed to give young people anxiety, it is adults telling them just how “damaged” they now are, and just how “ruined” their lives will now be as a result of six months’ disruption.

If there is one thing that young people do not “deserve”, it is being the unwitting grist in the mill of the endlessly churning political-media-educational machine or becoming the focus of indulgent adult insecurities. It is why I instinctively felt that for many, a break from it might be at least as beneficial to their well-being as harmful. And we risk adding to the complex by insisting that they now need “intensive care” catch-up courses for all of that damage that must have been done.

I am certainly not advocating neglect of genuine mental health problems: I know more than well enough from personal experience just how destructive they can be. But I also know that a serious risk in mental illness is the power of auto-suggestion – of talking oneself unnecessarily into a damaged mindset, thereby creating problems where none might otherwise have existed.

And at the root of all of this is – yet again – the commoditised, zero-sum view of education that now rules this country. It just isn’t like that: I have seen plenty of young people who have made very good lives for themselves despite not having been academically successful, and I have seen plenty who have made little of having some of the best educational opportunities of all.

In 1982, I got on my bike and rode to school to collect my ‘A’ level results. I felt a mild pleasure when finding out that they were better than I had feared. Both the anticipation and the event had a small impact on what would now be called my ‘mental health’ – but it did not damage me for life. And the one thing that was completely absent was the societal hype about the whole thing. It is still like that in at least some other European countries, where education is still seen more holistically – and where they seem to be treating the same current problem much more calmly.

Yes, this year has been one like no other when it comes to the exam season. Those who never sat their exams are entitled to be feeling somewhat cheated by the lost opportunity to show their worth. But they would be feeling less not more cheated, were the whole of their educational experience not focussed to the point of obsession on what happens in the exam hall.

For most, there will be other exam seasons during their careers, and for those at the upper end – doing Finals – these exams mostly took place anyway. For others currently sitting on critical performance thresholds, it would seem reasonable to implement an enhanced appeals procedure – though that should still not mean caving in to “prizes for all”.

The biggest disservice we can do to young people at present is to hype the supposed “damage” that has been done, and to play down the benefits from wider activities of which plenty have availed themselves, let alone the benefits of a break from the grind of the formal educational conveyor belt. If we lead them to believe they are irreparably harmed, then they are likely to believe it; they will feel “aggrieved” if we tell them they should be.

At very least, any harm should be considered against the benefits for plenty from wider educational activities, more time spent with parents and families, the enhanced sense of community that has resulted, and simply a break from the unremitting conveyor belt that is the modern educational experience.

But that is not something about which many claiming to be standing up for the pupils – while hastening to make all the political or professional capital they can from the situation – will be probably be too concerned.

(This post also appears on my professional blog).

Opinion & Thought

It’s your civic duty…

shopping

A few days ago, I received a circular from one of a small but growing band of companies taking a certain approach:

“We see from our records that you haven’t made a purchase from us for some time. Here is a voucher for 10% reduction”.

With a deadline of about two weeks.

I suppose this is a natural consequence of a data-rich world where companies can (relatively) effortlessly track our behaviour. I’m not very keen on it, though I can see that it could have benefits to the customer too.

What really jars is the implication that it is somehow an expectation that I will regularly spend money with a business whether I really need to or not. To me, it speaks loudly about what buying and selling is supposed to be for. Certainly, companies need sales to survive – but the implication almost seems to be that I am somehow failing in my civic duty if I fail regularly to provide chunks of my relatively small income to the shareholders of large businesses.

It’s another example of how I increasingly feel like an alien in my own country; I have no information whether companies elsewhere behave in the same way. It seems likely that this is not only a British matter, though there is always a cultural filter, and there is no reason either to assume that companies behave the same everywhere. Not all nations are equally brash and gung-ho in their attitude to consumerism. This does, however, feel like a very particular example of the extent to which British society is now controlled by and for commerce.

There have been other recent examples that reinforce this: the government’s recent “Welcome back” campaign to get people back into shops and restaurants ran under the caption “Welcome back to the shops you love” – with a relatively small reminder about safe behaviour as part of it.

The implication is, again, that shopping is not a practical matter but is (as a number of surveys have shown) the nation’s favourite leisure activity. It is no longer a means of acquiring what we need, but an engine of the economy, part of what we exist for. That may also explain a well-intentioned question posted a few weeks ago by a social media contact: “Do we live in a Society or an Economy?” It is a question to which I suspect many would find the answer less obvious than it seems to me. It may also explain why some people are prepared to risk public health for the economy.

There are very few shops I “love” – and those that I do, more because they are cultural institutions than anything economic. They include a delicatessen in Edinburgh and a model shop in Chelmsford. The former because it is a superbly well-stocked and atmospheric national institution, and the latter for old time’s sake, having been one of the original customers over thirty years ago, where I can always have a chat and am generally treated very well.

I can find very little to ‘love’ about the average chain store (or cafe etc), most of which peddle identikit stuff in identikit surroundings the length and breadth of the nation, whose staff know little and care less about what they are selling so long as they hit their targets. I recently saw such shops described as “the traditional British chain store” – as though the dominance of our high streets by huge, anonymous conglomerates is not a relatively recent phenomenon, and indeed something to be loved. It certainly seemed to be such shops that the government was referring to.

As with everything, Covid has thrown a different light. The “rediscovery” of local shops is apparently a resultant phenomenon – though not to those of us who never stopped valuing individual, local shops in the first place. But my incredulity was capped by an article in The Guardian about How to Stop Buying Cheap Clothes – with the admission that “we all” have wardrobes full of such items that are never worn.

Some of us don’t.

New clothes can be a great pleasure – but not because of the quantity in which they are bought; that tends to be highly ephemeral. I am prepared to spend a fair amount on items of clothing, though I like a genuine bargain as much as the next person. However, cheap rags produced in sweat shops are not a bargain. The article’s suggested remedy – try to wear an item thirty times before discarding it – was where the incredulity came. I have items in my wardrobe that are still good after perhaps hundreds of wearings, over many years. What’s more, I still like them very much, as with many other things I have spent good money on over the years.

That is what comes from the careful purchase of well-made items – and from not being a slave to ephemeral trends, whose only purpose is to keep people performing their civic duty of parting with yet more cash. Neither is it a matter of wealth: while there is an issue of initial outlay, the one or two items I buy in the average year certainly cost less in total than the dozens of cheap items that people apparently struggle to wear a handful of times. And they certainly last a lot longer.

And the same goes for all other aspects of consumption: it is a necessary action in order to equip ourselves with what we need – and given that, we might as well make it pleasurable. Done carefully, the acquisition of any new possession can be a moment of some significance. But the mindless mass-consumption of recreational shopping is not, in my opinion, a meaningful action – and that is shown by the rapid fading of any satisfaction, which in turn drives the need for a new ‘hit’.  Nor is it a wise or sustainable basis for running a national economy, particularly one that is a large net importer and has just ditched its major trading partners. If nothing else, it runs directly contrary to our environmental obligations and needs.

It certainly does not equate with the disingenuous implication that I somehow have a duty to keep spending with certain companies, whether I really need their services at a given moment or not. In fact, it could be seen as rather insulting to the “valued customers” to imply that they need reminders of how to behave. If the products and service are good, customer loyalty normally follows. At least if the customers are using their brains.

On further reflection, however, perhaps we could employ the same harrying data-techniques for rather more useful purposes: maybe we should start sending people reminders that they haven’t met their monthly recycling targets, been considerate enough to their neighbours, given enough to charity or looked after their children or elderly parents properly. Maybe they haven’t exercised or eaten well enough in the past month.

Strangely, successive governments have seemed much more reticent about getting equally heavy with such messaging, let alone enforcing pandemic restrictions – yet that is arguably where real civic duty lies; I wonder how it would go down.

Opinion & Thought

Charming

Morges 5

I once had a colleague who was able to bring the most feral of pupils instantly into line, without so much as a raised eyebrow. No one knew how he did it. It was generally agreed on the staff that Mr J- had something – but no one could say what. In many ways he appeared just an ordinary type, quietly spoken, though he did have piercing blue eyes. I watched him with pupils on many occasions, and I still could not figure out how he brought instant docility over every single one. He never raised his voice; he was always unflappably calm, yet alongside the laid-back approach, there was a certain intensity. He certainly had no obvious ‘trick’ or ‘side’ to him – and yet it seemed to work every time. The staff joke was that he was probably unspeakably threatening when no one else was watching; we couldn’t think of anything else that enabled him to have the effect he did.
It seemed that the pupils noticed too – the matter arose from time to time – and it was generally accepted that you didn’t mess Mr J. around, though again no one knew quite why.

When questioned, he gave nothing away. Talking to Mr J- was a somewhat hypnotic experience, but while he didn’t deny the situation, it was never entirely clear whether he realised or understood it fully himself. Maybe that slight air of mystery was part of the secret – but perhaps in reality he was as puzzled as the rest. There was somehow something about this apparently ordinary guy that I can only call Charisma.

I can only think of maybe two or three people whom I have known who had it. One was a former university friend, in whose company life somehow took on an extra shine. In some ways he was not even a particularly nice person, certainly something of an egotist. And yet it worked perfectly. It helped when he landed a plum job in Lausanne, which enabled him to have a lifestyle that he felt appropriate – and yet he somehow managed to work the same trick on the year we shared together in a student digs in a rather mundane British Midlands city. No matter how ordinary the day, somehow it gained extra vitality when J- was around. We both had temporary work after university – but while I was working as a hospital porter, J- somehow landed a job in one of the city’s smarter jewellers…

J- could on occasions be infuriating, and one was often left trailing in his wake, and yet my wife noticed the same thing when they met, as it seems did the many women he captivated, even though he didn’t always treat them well. The last time I heard, he was on his third wife.

At university J- had not been popular, indeed something of a figure for mockery – but I suspect that even some of that was jealousy. He had what I considered a good sense of style; he was his own man – and he carried it off beautifully. He tended towards classic style, had a great sense of propriety, and eschewed the froth of popular fads; yet he was resolutely modern. Indeed, charismatics somehow have a golden touch: like me, J- was also a railway enthusiast – yet there was never a hint of the usual stereotype to be seen. Once again, he set his own terms. I suspect that it was this sense of self-belief, which seemed to be something of a family trait, that was part of the secret: living life on one’s own terms – but still doing it well.

J- and I have not spoken for many years, yet he somehow remains a significant influence on how I live. But once again, J- himself rarely showed much self-awareness of what he had, or how it worked.

Today, I struggle to think of anyone I know who is in that league. That’s no offence to the many good people I know – and in any case I would not want to single out individuals – because I suspect that most of us will only ever encounter a few such individuals in their lifetime; the rest of us are left to trail in their wake. Sometimes it only takes a fleeting instant to identify charisma: I was once briefly in the same room as Nelson Mandela – and was once again left with a strong impression of someone who had some kind of rare personal magnetism. Sadly one is far more often left with an impression of the lack of it, even amongst those in society whose positions might require otherwise: Charisma (and the lack of it) is no respecter of rank.

I’m aware that I have only described charismatic males – which is not to imply that there have been no similar females – just that it is in some ways all the harder quality for a heterosexual to discuss in the opposite sex, thanks to all the other issues that can compound the matter! But the allure of charisma is something entirely different from sexual attraction.

More recently, I have been pondering whether it is only people who have charisma, or whether certain places are somehow charmed too. It is something that seems to be in many peoples’ minds at present, in the case of the British most notably with respect to various bits of the continent that we cannot easily visit at present. Interestingly – sadly – there seems to be much less of the same feeling for our own country.

In my own experience, the best example is indeed the Swiss Riviera – the side of Lake Geneva, where J- lived. Even when I go there these days, it somehow strikes me as being in possession of something that makes you regret that you have to live anywhere else. It is a kind of self-possession, but clearly not the product of a single masterplan, more the happy product of natural blessing and its having capitalised on that. Certainly not anything that in any way rubs you up the wrong way or makes you feel excluded. Despite its wealth and the many celebrities who live there, there are plenty of ordinary folk who were just blessed with having been born on the Lake’s shores. Strangely, the French shore of the Lake just doesn’t have it. Wistfully glancing through the websites of hotels in Morges, my favourite small town on The Lake the other day, I was struck by the same sense of something, that one just doesn’t get looking at hotels in Manchester – or even (perhaps a better parallel) somewhere like Bournemouth or Torquay.

Certain places in Italy seem to have ‘it’ too. Not necessarily the obvious ones, but often less-known places. Bologna is one example – but so is the smaller town of Cremona, and the even smaller one of Barga. It would be tempting to dismiss this as ‘just Italy’ – but I have equally seen plenty of places in that country that don’t have it, too. And it is also to be found, albeit perhaps less frequently, in some of the less obvious candidate countries. It seems to be a quality that transcends individual cultures.

Then there are the individual premises that just seem to ‘work’ – individual shops, cafes and the like that somehow have hit a sweet-spot where others didn’t. Sometimes they depend on capturing the zeitgeist, but the best become lasting institutions.

Oddly, it is sometimes possible to identify specific “ingredients” that sweep one up: and yet somehow one still fails to capture the sum of the parts and attempting to recreate (dare I say “copy”) it is doomed to failure. When it comes to places, lakesides seem to be one of the key ingredients of a charismatic place: the same goes for those in Italy and elsewhere. Even the few big lakes in the UK make a stab at it, though they mostly fail: too self-conscious again, to do it properly.

I’m not sure what the rest of us can do about it. There must be something about those places and people that make them what they are. And yet I wonder whether it is even any more than chance. I guess the whole nature of Sprezzatura is that sense of effortless style that can somehow put an everyday encounter onto another plane – and yet I wonder whether it is actually any more than a happy accident. By no means all of those who attempt Sprezzatura pull it off; in fact perhaps only a few do. In recent years, the rise of Pitti Uomo Peacocks has shown that Sprezzatura overdone rapidly just degenerates into vanity, and loses its appeal. Maybe the whole thing about charisma is that it is unconscious. As soon as you try to have it, or become aware that others think you do, then you instantly lose it. Because the instant killer for charisma is trying too hard.

I think this is where Britain fails. The majority of people in the U.K. seem content to live down-beat existences. Most homes seem to be little more than spaces where people exist; most food for most people is still just fuel – and while I saw a comment some days ago to the effect that the great effect of lock-down is that “nobody had to think about what they wear any more” I must admit that I laboured under the belief that that was, in any case, the norm in this country of shabby dressers. If what I encounter on the streets passes for what this nation considers to be good wear, then I despair…

Where in Britain it is otherwise, we tend to go to the other extreme and try too hard. That is the problem with the smarter residences, shops and eateries: they are far too self-consciously trying to be smart – and as I said, that is pretty much enough to guarantee they fail. Besides, smartness in Britain often carries too many class connotations of exclusivity to be truly charming – and is regrettably why too many people seem to do it. I struggle to think of much true charisma in Britain; even where one might have expected to find it, it is too often absent. Chelsea and Notting Hill are, at the end of the day, just more parts of over-built London, at least unless you have to odd billion or two to splash around. Same bad roads, same poor air.

The problem with smartness in Britain is that it is not the norm – and one feels that it is only done for reasons of snobbery or over-charging. Too often, one senses that noses will be looked down on entering such places without a Rolex and an Amex Platinum. Which is definitely not part of charisma; quite the opposite.

The difficulty here is that real charisma exists purely on its own intrinsic terms. The moment it is done to impress, to make money, or just for show, it degenerates into mere pretentiousness, even churlish one-upmanship. People and places that are truly charismatic carry on doing it even when no one is looking – for they are just being what they are. This may also explain how very ordinary things can be charismatic: a coffee served in a stylish cup is, to my mind, infinitely more appealing than the same coffee served in a chipped mug; all the better if it is properly made, rather than instant blend (though I suspect a true charismatic would get away with serving the latter…) But as soon as you know it is just being done for show, it too is ruined.

I don’t know what we mere mortals can do. Perhaps the answer is nothing, except perhaps bathe in reflected glory. The moment we try, by definition, we will fail. And yet, the wisdom of Sprezzatura also knows that the nonchalance requires (unseen) work. It is a fact that those stylish places need to be maintained; decisions need to be made about how things are done there. The same goes for individual lifestyles: given that we are not really talking about the financial constraints here, people make decisions about how they do things, some do one way, others the opposite. Often in Britain, the default seems to be downbeat, as though everyday life just isn’t worth it – and then people vainly try to dress things up for ‘special occasions’ – and all too often end up just looking crass. Perhaps they should try looking at the whole of life as a special occasion and stop worrying about whether anyone is watching or not.

On the other hand, if it remains true that real charisma is effortless and unconscious, does this really mean that the rest of us can’t work at our own? Ultimately it depends on attitude, and what perhaps puts many people off is the suspicion that charisma is egotism. While that can be the case (self-confidence can be beguiling), I think the words of Michael Bywater are significant: he dismissed it by saying that in effect it is a courtesy to others: a sign that you consider people and life – others, as well as yourself – worth the effort.

Here we have again the contradiction, that charisma just is what it is – and yet it is largely experienced by others. Maybe it is simply impossible for people to experience their own charisma – which may make you question why bother – and perhaps the whole construct in the first place. The same with places: while they exist on their own terms, you come away somehow feeling that they have done you a good turn, but you can still wonder whether life there would really be as good as it seems.

Yet that seems like a perfectly legitimate and affirmative worldview to me, one that says that any life can be made charming, if only you take the trouble. The same goes for charismatic places: it ought to be possible for charming places to exist anywhere – if only we make them so. There are plenty of humdrum places that have been given a lift; what is less certain is how well conscious effort works, and whether it successfully takes on its own life in the longer term.

In the end, it is perhaps just a mindset that makes the difference. And as for me, the very fact that I feel the need to ponder and write these things probably means that I’ve lost before I’ve begun…

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

the-quick-brown-fox-jumps-over-the-lazy-dog-is-an-example-of-what

It took a little while for us here to start wearing masks. While we were locked away at home, it wasn’t really an issue – but we now have them and hopefully wear them intelligently – i.e. when in enclosed public spaces or where proximity with others is likely. It has become apparent that wearing one also works quite effectively to remind others to keep a distance. It is not a major imposition, apart from the problem of foggy glasses.

So quite what is one supposed to make of reports that fewer than 25% of the British population is wearing masks? Experience here suggests that it may well be much less than that, and comments from friends suggest that even the legal requirement to wear one on public transport is being widely flouted.

By comparison, it is reported that around 84% of Italians and 65% of Spanish and (even) Americans are routinely wearing them.

Assuming the figures are correct, in my eyes this comes close to the indefensible. Even if there is disagreement over the impact of masks (which seems in any case to be diminishing) the precautionary principle surely applies. And the degree of difference in these figures is surely big enough to be significant about something. The question is what.

It is easy to put the hat of indignation back on; I do it easily – but then, I am a teacher. Teachers are paid by society to stick their noses into other people’s lives and behaviours and try to improve them – and I have been a teacher for a long time. Besides, when that behaviour potentially affects my well being, I believe it becomes my legitimate concern. That notwithstanding, it is still an objective fact that different societies in different places and times exhibit differing behaviours, and it is hard not to conclude that there must – somewhere – be reasons for this, given that human beings are in biological terms fundamentally the same everywhere.

Indignant or otherwise, it is easy to read this as an explicit statement of how a lot of individuals in Britain regard the wider society of which they (fail to see they) are a part. The purpose of wearing a mask is primarily to protect other people, and when widely observed, the situation becomes mutual. The impact on infection rates is becoming much clearer. There may well be widespread misunderstanding about this fact – but that raises questions of its own, both about how much attention people are paying, and the effectiveness of official communications.

Equally, it may be an expression of very low levels of concern that people have in what is left of civil society in Britain, for each other: so low that even a trivial but important obligation is too much of a personal infringement to be seen as worth making. This in turn might cause one to wonder at how it came to be like this here, when it is clearly not a universal habit.

The difficulty is, it is almost impossible to pin such things down objectively – and therefore one is left scrabbling for explanations that are all too easily distorted by confirmation bias.

As I said, the most charitable explanation is a low level of understanding – though this still does not reflect well on the country. Worse is low levels of concern, which fly in the face of much of this country’s self-image as a place of civilised values and courteous behaviours.

Somewhere in the mix this may reflect on the nation’s seeming inability to organise itself properly. Even arch-patriots seem to accept that good organisation is at best touch-and-go in this country, even if they turn the regular muddles and short-sightedness into a strange kind of virtue even as others (including me) are tearing their hair.

I suspect another facet is an in-bred tendency to look backwards: in general the British are not good as early adopters, since that involves looking positively at the future, and as a nation we are still far more in love with our past.

It seems to be true at both an individual and collective level: I saw a first-hand report yesterday from a British woman flying in from Germany, of sanitising facilities at Heathrow that had not been replenished, and of people milling around in the airport without any observance whatsoever of suitable distancing. Surely it is not beyond us to get these very practical things right? At very least, this is not the image we as a nation – and certainly not the present government – like to have of ourselves – and yet ironically such débacles are depressingly common. They are not everywhere – as many Brits seem to assume. As one commentator put it some weeks ago: “Even when all we need to do is copy the Germans, how come we still get it wrong?”

Still trying to be charitable, the only other conclusion that I can see for the traditional British cock-up (which seems to be more common than the alternative) is that there is something in the British culture or mindset that is so ingrained that we cannot collectively overcome it – even when we know we need to. It seems to be something that afflicts our ability to construct effective institutions and guide individual behaviour almost equally. I hesitate to call it a blind spot because some of us at least are aware it is there, though trying to overcome it is by no means as easy as might be thought.

What is the common trait that leads British planning law to be impenetrable, that causes so many mega cost-overruns on projects that end up being abandoned, that leaves us dithering over high-speed rail half a century after our neighbours started build theirs; that leads us to persist with outdated forms of government even though there are many examples of how they are dysfunctional – and which leads so many to neglect or even fight against basic individual responsibilities in the face of a resolutely apolitical virus? That makes it so difficult for people in this country to “do the right thing” even when they know they should, to take the easy way out even when we know it is doing us all harm?

Education might be a likely culprit. And in some ways plausibly so – but I think that any failings in that respect are more a symptom than a cause. Why is it that this country has taken such a myopic, market-driven view of education when many other countries seem to see perfectly clearly that developing minds and societies does not and cannot work in that way? That education needs to be about far more than just preparation for the workplace; that “qualifications” are meaningless if not backed by real knowledge and understanding? Arguably it is a shortsightedness that fails to cause it to be otherwise.

“The Market” might be another culprit – again reasonably so, because in reality, free markets like nothing more than large numbers of docile, compliant, identikit producer-consumers. And it is certainly not averse to trying to shape people’s behaviour (not least through flattery and the deception that people are freer than they actually are) to make them so. It seems to me that those countries that exhibit the kind of aggressive/defensive behavioural complexes that perhaps explain people’s unwillingness to take part in collective actions are more likely to have aggressively neoliberal governments and deregulated commercial sectors. But it is still not easy to say which is the cause and which the effect: in a sense people choose their economic models through the ballot box.

But I suspect that the real shapers of national mindsets are actually deeper and less obvious. For a start, I doubt that very many non-mask-wearers are actively going out to cause harm to others. The failure to make the right decision is probably less conscious than that: something that simply causes insufficient awareness of such issues in the first place, though a retail-indulged “all about me” is no doubt part of it.

Another common factor in self-harming libertarian cultures seems to be strong hierarchies. In the case of the UK this was, and in part still is, down to ancestry and social status. In the USA it is linked more directly with wealth – though the UK is treading that path too. I suspect that the resultant inequalities do not only do physical harm but also considerably wider psychological damage. The whole notion of a pecking order informs one’s sense of self; the restrictions imposed by one’s (many) superiors can be limiting and denigrating – and may well lead to a sense of powerlessness and an aggressive defence of what little remains of one’s autonomy and self-respect. Could this explain the shows of aggression seen when non-conformers were asked to comply with lock-down, sanitising or now mask-wearing?

I sense that something is different in those countries where mask-wearing rates seem to be higher (the US seems to be an anomaly here, though it reported varies massively between states – and correlates with their political allegiances). Lengthy acquaintance with some people in continental Europe suggests to me that on the one hand they are more assertively individualistic as citizens – and their socio-politico-economic systems reflect that – but perhaps as a result, they are also less aggressive when challenged or required to pool their sovereignty with others. Compared with places where there is a more overt or overbearing elite, there is perhaps a greater sense of real individual sovereignty – but also more respect for the same of others: in other words a greater sense of commonality.

It’s not an easy thing to describe – but a useful analogy might be driving styles. The UK has one of the lowest road fatality rates in Europe; this might correlate with its self-image as a polite and rather cautious nation. But it also has plenty of overt, daily aggression, often originating from those who drive the most expensive and powerful vehicles. In Germany, Switzerland and Italy, by contrast, experience suggests that driving is often more assertive – you will certainly know if a faster driver wants to pass – but there is somehow less overt aggression behind it; that assertive driver will still normally wait without hassling until you choose to pull over. Behind that, there is an implied acceptance that both have equal right to be on the road – something that road-rage denies.

I increasingly suspect that the supposed modesty that underpins the British self-image is actually nothing of the sort; it is actually harmful passivity: a kind of indifference or complacency born of the fact that in this country all the important decisions are made, and responsibility born, by Someone Else; that for many, their little lives are not felt to be as consequential as those of Important People. Such places often seem to have a strong culture of celebrity veneration, a kind of vicarious living, as though ordinary lives are not good enough.

I think it is symptomatic that here, the perceived solution to the mask problem is for the government to tell people to do it; it should not need to: they have minds of their own. And the failure of our government to do so is in any case part of the problem since governments elsewhere have done precisely that, supported by public expectations.

Somewhere in the mix persists the belief that we live in a promised land in which nothing really bad ever happens – even as it is killing more of our compatriots than almost any comparable nation. And therefore we never need to give any serious attention to our actions, because they are mostly inconsequential. Even when they are not. It is a kind of communal paralysis that is in so many ways perpetuated by the small-mindedness and belief that muddling through is still sufficient, even when we can see that it is not. It is the absence of a profound democratic belief that every life really does matter – not only those of the ruling and economic elites.

But it also allows those in the nation who are alert and ambitious (but not necessarily benign) – and not only viruses – to run rings round the lazy brown dogs of everyone else, thus perpetuating the situation and indeed making it worse.

Another objective truth about societies (as individuals) is that they are quite capable of self-harm, even knowing self-harm. Brexit is one example; the failure of civic duty in the face of the virus is another.

Britain is certainly not the only country where such phenomena exist, or where antisocial behaviours are manifest – but the disparities in mask wearing are surely significant enough to show that it is one of them. In that respect we come close to being objectively inferior to those who are getting it more right. Will we learn from them?

The belief that we are immune to national blind-spots is our national blind-spot. The problem is that the pathology seems so deep that we still simply can’t see it – let alone escape it.