Opinion & Thought

The Sound of Silence

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“To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.” Bertrand Russell

There is a way in which every one of us is alone in the world. Despite social media giving us a greater sense than ever of how we all belong to one great herd of humanity, there is much of life that can only ever be individual. Ultimately, it is not possible to delegate one’s experience of life, and anything that it might throw at you, to anyone else. It is down to individual resourcefulness to deal with.

Bertrand Russell had a lot to say on the subject. For me, his most memorable observation is the one above. Russell died in 1970 – but whether we have made much progress on this in the intervening half-century is moot to say the least.

The present situation, with around 20% of the global population in lock-down perhaps presents the ultimate test of his thinking. One of the things that has struck me in the past couple of weeks – and indeed continues to do so – is the level of unspoken alarm that many people seem to be exhibiting at the thought of not having work to do.

Of course, there are many pragmatic reasons why work needs to continue; we cannot press the Pause button on life, because the clocks continue to tick. People have needs that cannot wait.

There may also be a value in work as displacement activity, if it helps distract from the more anxiety-making thoughts of the current time. But I still suspect that a lot of the – frankly excess – effort that seems to be going into “putting arrangements in place” still comes back to Russell’s observations about the human fear of under-occupation, and the unavoidable contemplation of existential issues that may follow shortly afterwards.

As an educator, I find this distressing. My professional raison d’être, as I see it, is to encourage and help people to develop their inner resourcefulness, through the only media that we ultimately have available to us – our minds and bodies. That was the original purpose of education – to develop the individual – not to create efficient but unthinking work-units. Ultimately, these are the only inalienable tools we have with which to buttress ourselves against whatever life does decide to throw at us. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted exhaustive research into the experiences that people identified as giving their lives meaning and fulfilment – and he concluded that irrespective of culture, these were things that presented us inwardly with challenges that once mastered increase our sense of autonomy.

Yet somewhere along the way, this ideal has been lost. While we have repeatedly dreamed of a future with increased leisure time, the harsh reality is that we have, if anything, moved in the opposite direction. Even the world of education itself has lost sight of that holistic remit, and has increasingly focused on preparing people for a lifetime of work, a situation which, while it can present personal challenges of its own, in many cases has completely the opposite effect on people’s sense of autonomy and individuality.

This is a long-term trend that is observable in all developed societies: as economies diversify, more and more human activities are contracted-out to other providers – be that food production, child care, entertainment, or almost anything else. Modern media even, in effect, allow us to outsource our own need to think about things. We can just think with the herd – until we discover that the herd doesn’t really know how to think at all. There is a perceived lesser need to know things because we can resort to Google, and less need to develop intellectual agility as apps will do almost all of the thinking for us.

Except they won’t.

For a start, there is a huge difference between information, knowledge and understanding. In terms of the cognitive development that is so essential for a fulfilled human life, by reducing the need to work at things for ourselves, all the “conveniences” of modern life actually remove the need to work at our own intellectual development. They limit the development of our neural networks. Many of those media present us with pre-digested forms of information that require us to do nothing except vegetate and passively, uncritically absorb. The absence of the need to persevere, to struggle and to develop the patience necessary to do so, actually robs us of the mental resilience we find we still need when the world bowls us a spinner.

As I said, the education world has regrettably almost entirely colluded with this trend, in the name of inclusivity and “engagement”. The marketisation of education has turned students and their parents into passive consumers of educational services. That seems to have meant providing a wall-to-wall conveyor of pre-digested content, without any opportunity ever to stop and seriously think about it. Because anything too demanding (i.e. anything that makes you demand too much of yourself) is likely to deter – and as we know, The Customer is always right.

Yet personal development is just not like that; there is only one way to do it, and that is to struggle with something for yourself. All of the scaffolding now available to learners often does little than defer (perhaps indefinitely) the enduring need to get to grips with German genders or violin vibrato. Let alone your comfort at simply being present with your own mind…

I think this trend has now been embedded in our society for so long that it is almost invisible. As a teacher, I have seen the “helicopter parent” become a more and more prevalent phenomenon; it now extends up the age range to those who are at and even beyond university. And it has been supplemented by the helicopter teacher, who (with, of course, the best of intentions) feels the overwhelming urge to stop at nothing supposedly to assist their students. We can hardly blame them, when social disapprobation can reach the levels that it nowadays does, and when in the case of teachers their careers can hang in the balance if they are seen to be doing otherwise.

But as Russell I am certain knew, it is all in vain. All the hyperactivity to create illusory structure and ‘purpose’ for our own and others’ lives cannot ultimately deny that fact that we must all meet our fates alone. I have long harboured an uneasy feeling that the ‘contracting out’ of so much of our lives does little other than render us more helpless, more dependent on others, less equipped to face things that only we will have to face.

What’s more, we deprive ourselves not only of the resilience that comes from self-sufficiency, but also the rewards. No one can learn to play the violin or speak a foreign language for you. Ultimately, we all must make such journeys for ourselves; to avoid the pain is also to avoid the gain – the deep satisfaction and ongoing fulfillment that comes from mastering something difficult, which thereby enhances our own autonomy and empowerment. The brilliant cellist Pablo Cassals, was asked why, in his eighties, he still practised. Apparently, he replied, “Because I think I’m improving”. And to deflect others from (having to) do so is almost worse.

I don’t think any of the foregoing is to deny the need for the necessary to be done. There is no question that we can assist each other in all sorts of ways. But as a teacher, I have always kept in mind an image of young birds on the verge of flight: there comes a point when even the best teacher, even the best parent, needs to stand back and let destiny take its course. There comes a point when letting someone struggle (a bit) is the best form of support – and certainly the quickest method of learning. Perhaps the current situation is just such a moment?

I think there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is not only the young who would benefit from the need to spend a bit more time for introspection, for facing the existential realities of who they are, what they stand for, and how they face the sheer, immovable dilemmas of simply existing. I’m not sure that providing more and more vicarious distractions that prevent people from ever facing their own inner selves is ultimately very helpful. It may be why, with the current prospect of enforced leisure, many are rushing around frenziedly trying to find anything and everything that will obviate the need finally to contemplate their own navels. It is a form of helplessness that makes the prospect of months of curfew all the worse, perhaps almost worse (and certainly more immediate) than the risk of viral infection.

I’ve had experience of this. Luckily, I seem to have a restless mind that almost never tires of entertaining itself. This may be a personality trait that is not shared by everyone – but I’m not suggesting that there is only one way to address the issue. It’s a matter of finding what engages you and absorbs you – but being engage-able in the first place is a skill that may need practice. For people who are used to finding their entertainment externally, looking inward may be uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But my experience of being largely housebound for much of the past three years (as well as being a lifelong hobbyist) is that, in the longer run, it is the inner world that is the more rewarding.

So if you are reading this as a home-constrained worker, a harassed parent, or an over-anxious teacher, I’m not suggesting that what needs to be done should not be done. But it is perhaps necessary to question what that “need” really is.

By all means seek ways of filling the time – but the best place to look is inwardly, not outwardly. Find a new skill, interest or ambition to fulfill. And if you are responsible for others, do not feel you have to fill their every waking moment. Now might be precisely the moment to give them the space and time to explore their own inner resources. They are there – even if they need some looking for. The teachers amongst us might benefit our students most by giving them the space they need to find themselves, rather than insisting on doing it for them: to metaphorically even if not literally, climb trees. It is not a dereliction of duty.

The current crisis might in the longer term shed some beneficial light on our modern human condition. Part of that might be to show the extent to which we have lost our resilience and self-sufficiency and inner lives. Don’t resort to wall-to-wall Netflix; find something more challenging and active to do – and encourage others to do the same. It might be tough to begin with – but you will soon learn to accept the outward silence – and listen to the internal conversation instead.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

H.Q.

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Home. A baseline in the world. Perhaps the only place where we have anything like complete control of how that world is. And right now, what could be more important than that? When we are away from it, we describe places that strike a chord as “feeling like home”.

And yet, from much of what is being said at the present moment, home might as well be a prison. Spending time there is being portrayed as penitence, rather than pleasure. Many seem to be worried that spending time at home will send them up the wall. It should do the opposite. (I suspect that this is actually just the sound of the usual extroverts fearing what will happen if they are deprived of their social energy for a while).

It’s not like that for me. Much as though I love travelling, being out there in the buzz of modern life, there is nowhere I would ultimately rather be than home. It’s probably easier for an introvert – but never have I seen home as a prison.

I have spent a large proportion of the last four years at home – often alone. The mental health difficulties of 2016 and after meant that for quite a long time, I found it very difficult just to get beyond the front door. The loss of my career and related income meant that even after my difficulties abated, there was simply not the need to leave on a daily basis, nor the opportunity to do so, when it almost inevitably meant spending money that we didn’t have. So we fell back heavily on the things you can do at home.

Even now that I am working part-time again, in an environment where I can ‘spark’ off several thousand other people, I still look forward to coming home – to the place that is at once my restaurant, studio, café, spa, gallery, lounge, hotel, debating chamber, library, archive, concert hall, writing space, rehearsal room and workshop, all rolled into one. It is the defining backdrop of my, and our, life: the place where it has been possible to create a setting in which at least part of our lives can be lived on the stage of our choosing, rather than that of others.

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A good home should wrap around you like a second skin, it should envelop you and fit like a glove. It is both a haven from others, and a place where you allow them a little further into your inner life. It is also a creative space in its own right – where we can be amateur architects, play with space, materials, texture and light, to create something that is both nurturing and restorative – and at what point might such a thing be more needed than now?

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Perhaps I’m a little extreme (while I was unwell, I completed a diploma in interior design – it’s an interest that has always been there…). I’m aware that many others don’t seem to perceive, or feel about, their homes in this way. For quite a few, home seems to be solely a functional space, where they store worldly clobber and hang out when they can’t find anywhere better to go. Very often, this seems to be reflected in the attention (or lack of it) given to both aesthetics and organisation.

I’m tempted to wonder at the extent to which this is a wider cultural expression of a nation that perhaps lacks the creative spark of certain others, or which is inhibited from expressing itself by the near-universal British fear of social disapprobation. For rarely have I seen on the continent some of the utter shambles and aesthetic nightmares in which quite a few Britons seem to live. Pride in one’s home still seems socially acceptable there, without the accusation of social climbing.

A short while ago, the men who delivered a new appliance couldn’t resist showing me the pictures they had been required to take as evidence for their failure to install one in another house. I can’t begin to describe the appalling, insanitary horror displayed in those photos, apparently belonging to a “perfectly normal guy”, as they described him. What was happening there? Maybe deeply cerebral types simply don’t have enough spare head-space to pay attention to their surroundings – but I have always found the opposite: calming and comfortable surroundings are a great stimulus to creativity – simply because there are fewer jarring distractions.

I’m perhaps fortunate in that my “significant other” and I don’t have to deal with serious conflicts of taste or vision when it comes to what we want our home to be. It’s also been helpful that I am afflicted by neither macho hang-ups about being interested in home nor the less macho inability to realise and fix most things here myself. Our home is not prestigious: a two-bedroom apartment in an old school. It perhaps it is a little unconventional even for just being that; on occasions we have been gently ribbed for having produced a ‘show home’ – but it is not.

We happen to love a modern aesthetic that in this country (wrongly) seems associated with aspirational wealth. What we have done was entirely for our own private pleasure, no matter what others think – and it remains as calm when we are alone here as when we have visitors. Even a brief investigation of the origins of the modernist movement will show that it was founded in principles that were far-distant from the associations with affluence that it seems to have acquired.

It is true that we appreciate fine materials, design and workmanship. But it is a cultural error to correlate that with social one-upmanship. Such an appreciation does not always come with a high salary attached. It is certainly harder to achieve with more modest means – but it is possible precisely by paring back the aesthetic, reducing the amount of “stuff” one needs, and sinking one’s funds into a few signature pieces such as have lasted us for decades.

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Doing much oneself can help, too: in what was a shell when we bought it, I laid the wooden floor, and fitted out two bathrooms and a kitchen myself. The doing of it is often less daunting than the fear of trying.

Our home is also a form of philosophical self-expression – in our case the belief that Mies was right, and Less really is More. It is also an expression of our Europeanism: much of what is, and happens, here is a product of our exposure to the domestic and wider interior tastes of many countries. Back in the Nineties I was already doing this, having been utterly bowled over by the styles on show in France, Switzerland and Italy, where simple modernism has never been seen as the eccentricity it was until fairly recently in Britain.

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Inspiration in a Bernese showroom.

 

I still remember being stunned by the discovery of a boldly modern, kingfisher-blue Bulthaup kitchen installed in the Belle Epoque interior of the Chateau de Vidy in Lausanne, now part of the IOC headquarters and since refurbished again. I learned that there is more to homeliness than reproduction Victoriana or Georgian pastiche or ancient cottagey-ness.

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The current incarnation of the Chateau de Vidy, IOC headquarters, Lausanne.

For many years, I was my own personal importer of homewares from those countries, a situation that has now thankfully changed: another way in which this country has become unknowingly more European.

So for me, staying at home is no punishment. The modern home is equipped with everything needed to reach the world beyond, to allow it in on our own terms. It is the headquarters of our own lives. Our corporate selves might yearn for a beneficent call to visit HQ. But at home, the Chief Exec is us – and the HQ is ours, not theirs. What more could you want?

Might Now be a good time to pay renewed attention to your own headquarters?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Cannon fodder

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Now is hardly the time to be preoccupied by grumbles about the state of the nation. Emergencies such as the coronavirus should ideally see us setting aside our other differences and working for the common good. (I am very irritated by the email feeds that I subscribe to, which have continued to make political capital out of the situation).

However, it is also true that extreme circumstances often reveal stark realities about the way we live. Albert Camus used epidemic in his major work La Peste for precisely this purpose: the way in which various characters react in extremis speaks volumes about the real nature of the human condition.

On the one hand, locally there have been any number of small gestures of community-spirited kindness – while on the other, certain landlords elsewhere apparently intend to evict tenants who can’t pay their rent, come what may; this reflects a depressingly callous side of human nature. (Since I first drafted this, the government has said it will make such actions illegal – but the intent nonetheless remains…)

What is true of individuals is, it seems, also true of nations. The respective responses of various countries to a broadly common threat is quite revealing about the mindset of those who run them, not to say their general level of competence. To be fair, we should overlay on that the relative position of those countries in relation to the development of the pandemic. Those who were hit first can hardly be blamed for making mistakes that experience may allow others to avoid.

But it still informative to note the extent to which some nations have adopted a hawkish approach, while others have been towards the ‘dove’ end of the spectrum; this perhaps reflects varying perspectives on, and levels of compassion towards, humanity in general. And once again, Blighty seems to have been firmly in the hawkish camp. Boris Johnson’s early comments on national policy gave the impression that losses amongst the ‘ordinary ranks’ were to be considered acceptable, or at least unavoidable, collateral damage. Only later, when this was reported negatively, were slightly softer messages forthcoming.

His choice of words is also informative: he considers dealing with a virus to be a “war” in which we are all to be conscripts. It is not very different from the imagery he used for Brexit. It betrays a confrontational, winner-and-loser mentality that is of questionable utility – unless you happen to consider yourself a habitual winner, which Johnson of course does.

A salutary point, however, is that some of the countries that we have become accustomed to praising for their tolerance, progressiveness and democracy, have been quicker than the U.K. to impose conditions not too far removed from martial law. Likewise, Britain’s accursed island status has been thrown into sharp relief: on the one hand the arrival of the virus has shown the idiocy of believing that we really can pull up a drawbridge on the world – but on the other, it is perhaps true that with closed borders, islands and other remoter areas really are somewhat shielded from the risks of a wholesale pandemic that could more easily sweep across a continent.

Perhaps more important, though, is the vision with which a country is run. Are those others who have imposed draconian measures really doing so because of their underlying authoritarianism, or just a more realistic appraisal of what is in their people’s best interest? At least it appears that such policies are consistently and equally applied; I can’t help but wonder whether the gradualist British approach is designed to leave doors ajar for those who have the means to help themselves first…

I don’t subscribe to the view that the ruling class of this country is willfully neglectful of the rest of the nation. It’s more subtle than that – and Johnson is only the particularly buffoonish tip of a much larger establishment iceberg: one that is still raised to think in terms of social hierarchy, “natural orders” and its own self-evident preeminence. It can’t help it, any more than the rest of us can help having our basic assumptions – but it does have further-reaching consequences.

It is an attitude that propagates hawkishness, that makes it easy to consider the ‘ranks’ as lesser human beings, which in turn justifies in its own mind a hierarchical approach to how people are treated even in times of emergency. The key thing (just as it was in national nuclear-strike strategy) is to protect those who are ‘pivotal’  to the perpetuation of the existing order – who just happen, of course, largely to belong to one particular socio-economic stratum. Is this just the privileged protecting themselves again – or (given that many such people are senior decision-makers) a necessary strategy for continued societal functioning? It perhaps shows that in the minds of such people, the continued existence of the British State is more important in itself than that of the majority of the individuals who comprise it: an attitude that is a hangover of Empire if ever there was one.

This mindset is doing significant and increasing damage to the fabric of British society. It can be summed up as Entitlement. From their earliest days, those who are born into this segment of society is taught to assume as a ‘given’ that their destiny is assured – and that that destiny is one of privilege.

By means of accent, lineage, connections, high-paid employment, inherited wealth and education, they continue to sequester the best that this nation has to offer for their own kind, before the hoi polloi has a chance even to get near it.  Their crowning achievement is to have persuaded the rest that this is indeed a natural order, in which the principle function of the lower orders is to fall on their swords when necessary in order to perpetuate the good life for those at the top. This is why it shows so little concern for the impact of adverse events on the population at large: it really does consider those other lives to be of lesser value than its own.

It is an intractable problem. As one such person said to me some time ago: “There is so little you can do with the plebs. They are so hopeless, so basic, and with such low expectations that you really can’t consider them to be much more than cannon-fodder”.

Sadly, there is an element of truth in this. Having been working again with young people, it is all too evident that significant numbers come from backgrounds, and have expectations, that are very likely perpetuate poor-quality lives. It is extremely difficult to raise these young people’s expectations, or to persuade them that there are alternative trajectories for their lives to the ones that, by their late teens, they already seem locked into. Pointing out that there are others having very different experiences seems to do little good: they have already bought into the mindset that certain things are “not for the likes of me”. Such attitudes become an unwitting collaborator in keeping the so-called elite where it believes it belongs – and experience suggests that they really are a particularly extreme handicap in British society compared with elsewhere in Europe.

Yet when one is faced with the reality of the such starkly contrasting lives, it becomes quite easy to understand Holly Martins’ view in The Third Man, that most humans are little different from ants, whose ceasing to exist would make almost no difference. Except that its exploitation could help bulwark the higher orders further.

But it is wrong.

It is wrong in a way whose understanding of why is perhaps beyond those whose entire existence is predicated on their belief in their own preeminence. To begin with, you have to un-learn that ingrained assumption that some humans are naturally superior to others. I don’t believe that Johnson and his ilk spend their everyday lives consciously thinking and acting on this – but it is so utterly impregnated in their very existence that they probably can’t help themselves. It doesn’t help that they live and work in a bubble that thrives on such groupthink. Everything about their lives insulates them from the rest of society. This is probably why Johnson seems so little troubled by the criticism radiating from large parts of the rest of society: he simply doesn’t see that the same rules need apply to his type, nor that he need be troubled by their outrage. Part of his privilege is to be able to behave as he pleases, and answer to no one. And after all, the nation has just elected him by a landslide, hasn’t it?

But once you have un-learned the superiority complex of the ruling classes, one thing becomes apparent: it is not that everyone is important – but that in the face of a pandemic, no one is. And once you have accepted that, it becomes very much easier to understand why egalitarianism really is the only logical response – making sure that everyone has the best stab at this life that they can, for there are still so many things about this life that we cannot control that we really do need to optimise those that we can.

The hierarchy that still bedevils every facet of this country, even down to its pandemic management, fails to understand one thing: it is not a survivor of the brutishness of so much of national life, so much as its source. Those (supposedly) lower British orders need not be any coarser than they are in other countries; what makes them so is their knowing lack of opportunity and access to the more elevating aspects of life. And this has primarily been caused by the hoarding tendencies of those with the means to do so: the higher orders are not the refugees from baseness that they seem to believe: they are its cause.

In Italy, residents of the big apartment blocks have responded to their incarceration by singing on their balconies; in Britain, the media seems to be responding to a similar scenario by reminding the nation how much television there is to watch. This is the extent to which such disparities in everyday life-opportunity infiltrate national psyches. I have had to work hard to persuade my teenage students that there is plenty they could do to stop themselves getting bored in the coming months. But they are mostly not that resourceful; British society encourages them to be otherwise.

Life today is in many ways far removed from Hobbes’ view of it as “nasty, brutish – and short”. But we still have far to go – and it is perhaps it is during extreme times, whether Brexit or the pandemic that this is exposed. Some people are starting to describe these things as a wake-up call. Perhaps the test of this theory will be whether those who increasingly run the show use it to bulwark their own positions, or finally to wake up to another reality. After all, the really essential workers at times like this are the ones doing the most basic but essential work – and maybe we need reminding of that fact.

Perhaps the most likely eventuality is that the present economic model – which (with education) is the prime mechanism for perpetuating privilege – may simply fail to cope with this emergency; the fact that Johnson has already hinted at a universal basic income and eviction controls may be a sign that realities are being faced that might otherwise not have been.

On the face of it, a virus does not discriminate between people according to their wealth or social status – but the ability (and willingness) of the elites to protect themselves at others’ expense will no doubt – as Camus pointed out – speak volumes.

 

Travel

Under-Ratae-d*

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Town Hall Square

I’ve always liked Leicester – one of the UK’s rather under-rated cities. My maternal grandparents lived about 12 miles from it, and a day out to the city was an exciting treat for a small child more used to a rather dull west-country town. In those days, the city retained the last faded elements of its Edwardian grandeur, though the scars of declining industry were all around, and a particular memory is the gaunt and weed-infested approach to what I now know was the Great Central Railway station, its signals still standing, awaiting a train that was never to come. I remember too, the ages spent waiting in The Midland Educational, a grand old bookshop and stationer’s on Market Street while my mother browsed what seemed like the entire shop…

More than a decade later, I visited again while searching for a degree course, and felt a surprising sense of ‘home’ – though those early memories were probably too general to be much of the cause. As cities go, Leicester is just quite homely. And so a second relationship with the city commenced, extending for a year after graduation, before I moved east for a teaching course. By the early eighties, like most British cities it was feeling rather tired, though the first tentative shoots of rebirth were even then appearing, and there was still plenty to appeal to us small-town students.

I go back from time to time, most recently a week ago. While perhaps not as glossy as the reborn Manchester or Leeds, Leicester has recaptured some of its civic pride. There has been a boom at the two universities, while the retail centre has been expanded with several new malls and the reworking of the historic centre as the “Leicester Lanes” (though I do wish that all and sundry were not now jumping on this Brighton-originated moniker…) There are plenty of small independent shops and an excellent selection of eateries. The area around the distinctly modest cathedral has also been upgraded, thanks to moneys humped in on the back – so to speak – of the Richard III discovery – and the hideous seventies monstrosity that was the indoor market has been demolished to create a new public square. The outdoor covered market remains – reputedly the largest in Europe, with a smart contemporary extension providing new room for fish, meats and cheeses.

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The covered market

 

We parked near the University and walked into the centre down New Walk, a pedestrian promenade created in Georgian times to link the city to the swankier new suburbs to the south, and still lined with grand buildings. There is much fine Victorian architecture in the centre, including the original Thomas Cook building, with its frieze of Cook’s first ever excursion from Leicester to Loughbrough. There are several fine art deco facades, and a number of early arcades, though it is often necessary to look up, as not all of the modern shop fronts are particularly sympathetic – something that needs rethinking.

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De Montfort Square, New Walk, courtesy Creative Commons

The Townhall Square is another fine example of Victorian civic building, which I feel could still have slightly more made of it.

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Town Hall Square

We had an excellent lunch in a small Italian trattoria, a chance find tucked away down an unpromising side street , and we also found time to visit Queen’s Road and Allandale Road, two of the more distinctive areas of the Victorian suburbs, the former slightly studenty-bohemian, and the latter now the hang-out of the local chi-chi set.

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Queens Road
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Lunch

Having visited Lille a month earlier, this was an interesting opportunity to compare former industrial cities in two countries. Lille is considerably larger, and considerably more stylish – but Leicester can hold its own, in a rather more low-key way. I tend to find Victorian and Edwardian architecture bombastic and overblown – but there is no denying the grandeur of it. Given that so much of the earlier quarters of many British industrial cities have been lost, at least it provides a civic presence, which at long last is being enhanced rather than further spoiled by some imaginative contemporary additions.

The British still seem to lack the creative flair that really give some of the re-imagined continental cities their sophistication – but at least we are heading in the right direction.
*Ratae Corieltauvorum

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

The topographical geometry of a big little island.

Geography still suffers from an image problem. It has never had glamorous TV presenters or highbrow authors to make its case as has, for example, history. And yet, as one of the few books to buck the trend shows, History is the prisoner of Geography. What happens in places is, fundamentally, dictated by the spatial configurations of those places.

For better or worse, Brexit has prompted an increased focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the UK – something that I felt had largely been put to bed by the early 1990s as free market economics (and in my view the Single Market) provided at least the veneer of a much more successful country. As I worried at the time, it was merely papering over cracks that have been cruelly exposed again in the last fifteen years.

And yet we seem not to learn the lessons of Geography. British people widely seem to have almost as little real appreciation of the lump of rock they inhabit in the eastern Atlantic, as they do of the continent next door. At present, this is particularly apparent in the discussions about regional disparities and the role that new transport infrastructure may have in addressing it. Yet even the politicians seem not to have noticed that history is littered with initiatives to solve this particular problem, as though it is nothing more than a slight political oversight, rather than the more enduring forces of geography that they are dealing with.

So here is a brief explanation.

  1. The British Isles are not “an” island – nor just two – but about 6000 – of which about 130 are inhabited.
  2. Many of those islands are highly indented in shape. Great Britain alone has a coastline of around 17,800km (setting aside the controversy about how this is calculated). It has an area of just under 210,000 km². The Hausdoff Dimension for the island is a high 1.25 – in other words, there are lots of separate, sticky-out bits into the sea, on the way to nowhere.
  3. This means that useful distances between places are often a lot longer than they appear. For example, Pembroke to Penzance is 175km as the crow flies, but 500km in human travel terms. From my home, Dover is about 90km away in a straight line but double that by the shortest road. In practical terms, this means that regional economies that in a country of a more consolidated shape would be able to interact, are often barely able to.
  4. In addition, Britain’s position on the margin of a vast ocean means that there are few reasons to go to, let alone beyond those outlying places in order, for example,  to reach other countries. Italy suffers from a similar peninsularity problem, but at least one can head to the Balkans or North Africa from the extreme south. There are very few places to go from northern Scotland. So they remain culs de sac.
  5. As a result, many of Britain’s regions are remote, underpopulated and underdeveloped – for example, the further south-west, west Wales, and progressively, the whole of the north.
  6. The shape of the island naturally dictates that routes from the extremes all converge in south east England. London is not where it is by accident.
  7. While the country’s topography is not as challenging as say Italy’s, when combined with the indentation, it still presents problems. Those radial routes manage to cross lowland England without too many problems – but they are then divided from each other by ranges like the Pennines and the Welsh uplands. This makes travel to London easy, but cross-country travel much more difficult. There is only one proper East-West motorway between the M4 (London to Bristol) and M8 in Scotland.
  8. Equally, linear geographies make the emergence of parallel routes more difficult – there is nothing approaching the ‘net’ of motorways seen in Germany and Benelux, thus focusing traffic – and hence congestion – on a few routes. See the maps below (though note that some British dual carriageways not shown would almost be considered motorways on the continent). There is still no direct continuous dual carriageway between the English and Scottish capitals, nor along the south coast.
  9. The same shape only gives rise to one major non-London axis, from south-west to north-east – but this was historically neglected by transport companies that were much more interested in serving London. It also has to dodge or cross many of those ridges of upland.
  10. Recent history has not helped either: when Britain was the world’s workshop, it was as easy to dock a ship at Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow as London. This was aided by the fact that the hinterlands of those cities produced goods (cotton, wool, steel) for which wet, hilly terrain was a positive advantage when it came power sources and raw materials. Nowadays, such areas are perhaps less attractive. In many ways, the population distribution of the UK is a relic of 150 years ago. If you were planning a new city today, you would probably not choose Glasgow or even Newcastle as the location. The large populations of northern England and central Scotland are marooned in places which in geographical terms have little competitive advantage – and lots of disadvantages.
  11. The increasing links between the UK and the continent have placed the regions at an ever greater disadvantage. Any trade or travel between them and the continent encounters the London region as a major blockage, in both practical and economic terms. And coming the other way, too much investment gets as far as London – but no further.
  12. This has not been helped by policies that have privileged the London region at the expense of the rest. In simple terms, the UK has focused development in the most favoured areas and abandoned the outlying ones. Many countries would use infrastructure to do exactly the opposite. But regional services through the Channel Tunnel never got off the ground – cancelled due to low predicted demand – even though there was equally low demand for train services from London to Paris before the tunnel opened. Quite apart from the practical impact, the effects on provincial perceptions of ‘Europe’ would have been great.

A lot of current discussion centres on, for example, whether the country needs High Speed Two – or whether the money would be better spent linking the northern cities. This is to miss the point: we need both. The fact that the cost is now so enormous is the result of decades of failure to address the problem. We are half a century behind the French, for example, in building high speed rail lines.

Too often, they are still seen as discrete projects, rather than as an integrated network. It seems to have been too much to expect High Speeds One (to the Tunnel) and Two (to the north) to be linked together, for instance. It was also too much to expect Crossrail to be linked into HS1, or to be used to provide regional services from East to West across southern England, rather than a simple commuter shuttle for London.

High Speed Three (Liverpool to Hull) makes most sense if it is linked into HS2 in Manchester and Leeds – it is the overall connectivity that is important, and would make the projects both more cost-effective and user-friendly. It would also reduce the risk of HS2 simply sucking more growth into London. And the option of building it from Plymouth to Edinburgh to link almost all regional centres to provide a counter-balance to London seems never even to have been considered – despite the fact that that route could have been built with money saved from expensive construction in the London area.

An imaginative private sector proposal to link HS 1 and 2 via Heathrow and Gatwick has apparently been rejected even before the drawing board (too many Tory seats in the way?)

All of these things are entirely within the ability of this country to solve – or would have been, had they not been neglected for so long that the cost is now enormous. The real problem has been a lack of understanding or foresight – of the benefits of joined-up thinking in particular. And that is perhaps the most British failing of all.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

After the storm.

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After the storm came the calm. The passage of 31st January 2020 was always going to be difficult – and so it proved, despite my best efforts to ignore it. But it was also a non-event as most of the country remained quiet.

The following morning, I woke to a strange sense of relief – I guess a natural reaction to the knowledge that an unpleasant ‘peak’ was finally past. But that in turn is giving way to a more sombre mood, as the reality of what came to pass sinks in – assisted by the first depressing indications from the government about what it intends next.

For me, the shock of Brexit was compounded by the fact that this is the dénouement of something I have striven for not for three, but more than thirty years – ever since I first visited the European Parliament in 1989, and my already-nascent Europeanism crystallised into something more specific. But all those years of battling widespread indifference, when Europeanism was seen in the UK, if at all, as an eccentric minority concern, seem finally to have ended in rejection.

For this reason, too, it has seemed all the more cruel that I have had simultaneously to contend with several years of poor mental health (thankfully also largely past), which made every surge and slump of hope that much more acute.

But we must rise above. I made myself quite unpopular at times by questioning both the motives and methods of some of those campaigning for remain. I am unrepentant – because I know that the insight that comes from self-scrutiny is an essential part of understanding. And from understanding comes greater effectiveness.

I still worry that the irrationality, even hysteria, that was seen in some quarters of the remain camp, was an expression not of resilience, but the lack of it. I have found my own greatest reserves in the knowledge that membership of the European Union is not the same as being European. The latter is an entirely personal matter of perspectives, values and choices, that cannot be taken away by mere political changes. It took thirty years to grow, and I have my doubts that it can be ‘acquired’ in three. 

I fear that the extreme emphasis placed by some on the technical and political losses of Brexit only betrayed the void that lay behind. Clinging to the technical minutiae was in fact an expression of the insecurity of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, not its strength. For many in the UK, membership of the EU was perhaps their only apparent means of European expression. It is not. The objection to things that were being taken away was perhaps indicative of the lack of appreciation – or ‘ownership’ – of those things that cannot be taken away.

I don’t for a moment blame anyone for that – the climate in this country for five decades has done nothing whatsoever to encourage people to think otherwise. But in a sense, the remain movement was nonetheless an expression not of the solidarity of British Europeanism, but the opposite: something already barely within reach that was now being taken away. My reason for pointing this out was simply to alert people to that possibility. It seemed to have escaped notice that some of the sentiments being expressed in the name of “Europe” were diametrically opposed to what that ideal supposedly stands for. The fact that I fell on deaf, even hostile ears only confirmed my fears.

But that is why it was ultimately futile: over 47 years, Europeanism utterly failed to resonate in any cultural sense for the vast majority of people in Britain, such that Brexit would represent the ripping away of anything at all. By contrast, the Leave camp was able to appeal to precisely that “gut” instinct of its latent support base, that they were regaining something of value.

Grieving is a necessary and important process. It brings catharsis, and ultimately acceptance. But even in its depths, our rational selves can still recognise it for what it is. I’m not convinced that utterly abandoning ourselves inconsolably to it is ultimately helpful. We might at least accept that grief is capable of hugely distorting our world view – and save important decisions and declarations for a time when we are more rational again.

This is why I think it is essential that we pro-Europeans to take a hard look at ourselves, as soon as we each feel capable of doing so. I think it is why we should be cautious about knee-jerk reactions, such as those “rejoin” demonstrations that have already taken place. They could do a lot more harm than good at the moment. Discretion needs to be the better part of valour.

Now is precisely the moment when those rational selves need to reassert themselves, painful though that may feel; nobody said this was going to be easy. We must all rise above. After all, profiling of pro-Europeans suggests that they are more likely to be highly-educated and with a forward-looking, progressive view of the world. If we neglect the advantages that this confers, then we really will need to abandon all hope. The backward-looking traditionalists will have won.

So what is to be done? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Focus on the personal aspects of Europeanism that are solely within the individual’s control. Ask yourself hard questions about what it actually rests on for you. Is it simply the desire to go through the fast lanes at passport control, or it is an integral part of your daily life? How familiar are you with the reality of the rest of Europe – or is it just a holiday destination? Are you a role model for what Europeanism means? How many languages do you speak? (This above all is something we need to address). In what ways has wider European culture shaped your own day-to-day life? Do you follow European affairs as a matter of course? When you conceive of where you live, which map comes to mind (the British one, or the European one)? What choices and values do you live by – and what are you transmitting to your children and those around you? How many genuine friends do you have in other countries? (If none, can this be fostered?) Europeanism is ultimately about horizons and perspectives – our own.
  2. Accept that on the one hand there is little to be done about the current national situation – but on the other, that it is not set in stone forever. In five years’ time, there will be another election, and a subsequent government will not necessarily pursue the same hard-line policies as the current one. We need to do everything possible to ensure that a change of regime is achieved.
  3. Look at the domestic situation. Many of the flaws in this country that led to Brexit were not caused by it. We need to maintain the pressure for electoral reform, for regional rebalancing, for less inequality, and for awareness-building amongst a wider public, about the merits of ongoing Europeanism (not just EU membership). If the current government assists by addressing some of the regional issues, then we should give credit where it is due – and recognise that they are actually helping to reduce dissatisfaction with the state of this country. Regional aid is, after all, a European approach. That can help us – and it may well be that the actual trajectory of the country will do so too, should the economy and social provision plummet further.
  4. Realise that we are not immune to human weakness. Perhaps the greatest current threat is simply that the passage of time will blunt pro-Europeanism, as people become acclimatised to a new reality: the acceptance that grief eventually brings. There is no point in dismissing that possibility at present: it is simply too soon to tell. A harsh reality is that acute events tend to mobilise people to action, but their removal can have an equally rapid dissipating effect – and the peak moment in the anti-Brexit mobilisation is now past. No one can be sure exactly how much will be left of the remain movement two years from now – and anyone suggesting the contrary is claiming things that are simply not knowable.
  5. Accept that reconciliation will be necessary. That means give as well as take. It is probably true that views are now so polarised that a whole segment of the British population is beyond reach. But remember too, in your shame and frustration, that we are not the only European nation to have such people. We still have at least to tolerate them: I am not convinced that the condescension and condemnation that flowed towards them helped the Remain cause one iota. It just embedded a lot of their prejudices. In order to reverse Brexit at some point, we will need to convince those who are not currently strong Europeans. Demographics are on our side – as may be coming events. We need to take every opportunity to demonstrate what has been lost – and how it can be regained. The first thing to do is to tackle the very thing that never took root in the first place: the shifts necessary in the national mindset to bring real European understanding to this country in a way that, had it existed, would never have allowed the Brexiters to rip it away. Until that genuine love of Europe is embedded in our national psyche, then no political campaign is likely to succeed.

This is not a matter of national politics; it a matter of the personal choices of every person in the country. It may not make much progress for a long time – but it can begin now.

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Sea birds on the Essex mudflats on Bidet. Tomorrow they might be on the Rhine estuary. Brexit means nothing to them.

 

Opinion & Thought

A bird in the hand…

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Research has shown (regrettably I can’t find the source) that people value things they already have roughly twice as much as those they don’t. Groups of students were given the opportunity to purchase a mug, while other groups were given one free; some of the latter showed indifference to the gift. In both cases, they were later asked to part with the mug. Those who were asked to give it away widely refused, while those who were given the opportunity to sell it priced it at about double what the students had been prepared to pay for it in the first place.

The experiment shows the effect of Loss Aversion. It is human nature to guard things that we have acquired, since they may be useful to our survival: a basic instinct. In short, people make a lot more noise over losing something, than over something they never had in the first place.

It is also an instinct that seems to be widely distorting accurate assessments of where people’s best interests and real preferences actually lie. Obsessive hoarders are perhaps an extreme example of this – the inability ever to jettison anything eventually causes everyday functioning to be choked by vast piles of junk.

It operates at more consequential levels too. The county where I live was proposing a major cull of public library provision. There was a predictable outcry, which led to thousands going on marches, signing petitions and celebrities getting involved. It made national headlines. My local library was threatened, and local people were in the vanguard of the protests, vociferous about how important it is to have a local library.

Even as a non-library user, I supported the campaigns, because I genuinely believe that civic facilities are important, and disproportionately so for the less advantaged. The County Council responded with figures that showed a rapid decline in library use. (They were not all they seemed – not least because the decline correlated with cut-backs in library opening hours, and because of the particular measures they had chosen to use).

The Council eventually backed down – at least for the time being. In the aftermath of the campaign, there was a marked increase in library patronage. But recent anecdotal evidence suggests that this may have subsided, and we are heading back towards previous levels – which will only equip the County Council with further evidence to revisit the issue in due course.

We might call this the Radio Three Effect: there was a similar outcry to proposals for a radical overhaul of the highbrow classical music radio channel some years ago – by far more people than actually listen to it. With many items of cultural capital, people like to know they are there, even when they never use them; the loss of such things is a bigger issue than their practical benefit.

The problem with this comes when assessments need to be made about sustaining such institutions, particularly the funds they consume, which might arguably be better-used than maintaining largely-empty civic icons. There is, of course, the argument that says such things need to be provided so that they are there when people do need them (which I support) – but it is hard to sustain when overall usage levels remain low.

A wider problem with the bean-counting approach was exemplified by the Beeching Cuts to the railways (the closure of which routes was also vociferously opposed at the time – by people who often drove to the protests in their cars): by continually paring away things that appear not to pay their way when seen in isolation, we undermine the viability of services that more generally do.

I don’t wish to give the impression that I approve of the blinkered bean-counting approach to social and cultural assets. But it is nonetheless hard to present a reasoned argument against it when the case for such things is based on hypocrisy. It seems to me that the real problem is the duality between what we say we value – and what we actually do, as measured by things we really patronise. This – regrettably – is what a free-market philosophy is based on. And the problem behind that is a society that seems to be changing and evolving in ways that we are not happy with but seem powerless to alter, even when it comes to adjusting our own behaviour.

The logical conclusion of the popular-patronage approach to what is valuable is that we would end up with a nation full of large shopping centres, sports stadia, a few iconic museums and galleries – and not much else. Is that what we want? Maybe not – but it is certainly how we behave.

The same argument can be extended to almost all aspects of life: the means of transport we are prepared to use, and even the extent to which we are really prepared to change our behaviour in the face of the environmental emergency.

What’s more, I am expecting much of the outcry about Brexit to subside in the next year or two. At present, we are in the stage of defiant proclamation that after our loss we will change, that we will be faithful Europeans from now on and evermore, that we will return. This is not to dismiss the very real pain of those who genuinely appreciate and practise Europeanism, but what, for instance,  are the views of the 95% of remain voters who do not appear on the social media groups? What is one to think of those who apparently never even thought about Europeanism before it was to be taken away, let alone stood up to advocate or defend it? Time after time when I quite genuinely ask people what the significance of Europeanism is for their own particular lives, almost always I get silence, a non-answer, the usual platitudes about the principle of the thing (not unimportant – but see the foregoing argument) – or a change of the subject. Very few seem willing or able to expound on the subject: why is this, when they are supposedly so passionate about it?

I am left with the regrettable conclusion that many don’t know – or that the answer is nil. In many cases, I’ve also been left with the sad sense that real knowledge and insight is lacking, even amongst vociferous remainers. (In my own case, I am entirely conscious of Europe’s impact: this blog forms part of the evidence of that. I can also claim three decades of advocacy of the EU, even when it was deeply unpopular.)

Very reluctantly, I am coming to the conclusion that for quite a large proportion of those who object to Brexit, it may be little more about  a severe national outbreak of Loss Aversion,  than the deep, personal significance of Europeanism. The pattern of behaviour fits. Britons abroad constitute no more than a few percent of the population; for many still in the UK, Brexit will make few specifically-attributable differences, beyond fewer, more expensive European goods in the shops and more bureaucracy when going to the continent on holiday.

If that is the case, then the years and years of changed behaviour that keeping the European flame alive in this country will entail, will simply be too big an ask for many. The passionate outpourings of the past three years will then mean little more than similar ones against other closures of things that most people never use.

I hope I’m wrong – but only time will tell.

You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.