Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why should only some have prizes?

Mrs May today says she “shares British people’s frustration” that Brexit has not (yet) been completed. In doing so she illustrates perfectly the endemic problem with British politics that got us into this fix in the first place: she is quite at liberty utterly to disregard the opinions of the at-least-half of the population that disagrees with her. We simply don’t exist, let alone figure in her reckoning. She can claim she speaks for the nation when she clearly does not. Our fate, as a beaten (supposed) minority, need be of no interest to her.

This is the result of a system that is based on disagreement and confrontation rather than consensus-seeking. It is a system based on beating your opponents and then ignoring them. Both major parties are as bad as each other when the chips are down and they win power. This is no way to run a pluralistic modern nation.

This is the system that allows the Conservative Party to describe itself as “the natural party of government”. The fault in that is not the obvious one – but the implication that governing a country needs to be a zero-sum choice in the first place. It is also the system that then allows this party – true to its name – to resist modernising the nation and preserving the privileged classes upon which it has always heavily drawn.

This is why we urgently need electoral reform. While there is no perfect system, and it is true that most of the alternatives are both more complex and less certain, that actually reflects the realities of life, which is no longer as straightforwardly feudal-tribal as our antiquated system presupposes. The implications are far reaching: not only does consensual politics send an entirely different message to the populace, one of inclusiveness rather than monopoly, but I suggest that it eventually effects the very way in which people think about both politics and society more widely.

This nation is handicapped by a confrontational national model that goes far beyond politics – the mentality of winner takes all. It has done immense damage to the country over the decades, not least because of the sense of disenfranchisement and outrage that it fosters, and the frequent reversals of national policy that it causes. It takes a regressive view of life that says only some are entitled to opportunities and rewards – ironically quite the opposite of both right-wing views on ‘opportunity’. and the left-wing view of inclusiveness.

When it comes to Brexit, the argument is not symmetrical: within the EU, nobody is forced to acknowledge that organisation: people are free utterly to ignore it if they so choose. But outside the EU, the rights of pro-Europeans to exercise their wishes and loyalties will be prevented: another case of unnecessary zero-sum politics.

The view that life needs to be about ‘winners’ – and hence ‘losers’ – in my view has no place in a just modern society. Life is both more complex and more random than that, and when it comes to opportunity and fortune, ‘no man is an island’. Ultimately, we are all dependent on each other, and our systems should reflect that fact.

Whatever happens with Brexit, it is essential that this is changed in future. Unfortunately the very nature of the present system makes that, in my judgement, very unlikely, even after the present experience. What will it take to bring about change to a healthier national mindset?

Opinion & Thought

Citizens of Somewhere

I recently saw a comment by someone who said he had voted Remain “in order to get his country back”. At which point, I will hasten to say that this is not another post about Brexit. Well, not really: it’s about culture.

His point, though, was that Britain as he saw it was an open culture, that has always happily assimilated others into its own domestic life, from Jamaican music to Indian food and Italian coffee – and he saw Brexit as representing a return to an intolerant, mono-cultural past.

This set me thinking about the traditional cultures of Britain. I use the plural because even before the migrations of the Twentieth Century, these islands were always home to more than one, for all that Victorian paternalism might have tried to pretend otherwise.

I have always felt a tension in my own life between the progressive, modernist, internationalist outlook that this blog generally advocates, and my culturally more conservative side. Many of the good things I discuss here are in a cultural sense quite conservative. For example, I see no good reason to mess with traditional cuisines, when the original dishes are fine in their own right, and have stood the test of time. They did that for a reason – and more often than not, those who tamper with them rarely come up with anything as good as a finely-produced original. This applies to other cultural expressions from literacy to dress, too: fusion normally fails.

The same issue crops up in my musical tastes. In particular, the apparently conservative world of traditional music in which I’m active hardly sits well with internationalised modernist tastes. I find that conscious attempts to modernise the tradition are rarely as good as the original. Many traditional musicians these days are writing their own tunes, supposedly in the traditional idiom – but more often than not, they are little more than clever but instantly forgettable riffs, with none of the structure and character of ‘real’ traditional tunes. They derive from the blandness of pop music which is those people’s default cultural reference, rather than the inherited instincts of the traditional proper.

But the more I think about this, the less of a real conflict I see. The main point about tradition is not that it is old-fashioned, so much as timeless – and therefore there is no reason why it should not be as relevant in the present as any in past era.

While it is undoubtedly true that tradition changes over time, it tends to do so by a process of accretional, almost imperceptible evolution, rather than the attempts of radical individuals to turn things on their head. It is probably these characteristics, the perceived continuity and familiarity that give traditional things the comfort that appeals to many. (Maybe there is a lesson here for those who would push European integration too fast…) The problem is, it gets confused with a kind of stubborn, stuck-in-the-mud-ness that refuses ever to move forward. The Scots have the concept of the ‘carrying stream’: the cultural river that flows out of the past, through the present and into the future, linking the then, the now and the next into a continuum of shared identity.

Here is where the wider significance of this becomes apparent: I make a distinction between folk music (which I tend not to like) and traditional music (which I often do). This may seem to be splitting hairs – but the latter is a timeless musical form, whereas the former is a confection, an imagined past that was reconstructed from the 1960s onwards, to replace true traditions that had been allowed (or forced) to die out. One is deeply authentic, and the other is just an arcane form of popular commercial music. This is the difference between ‘real’ culture and a manufactured facsimile.

When it comes to “getting our country back”, it is not as simple as it sounds: for all that the British claim to love tradition, much of what they actually like is not, in my books, traditional at all: it, too was manufactured. We see new-build houses being described as traditional, when they are actually a facsimile collision of Victorian, Edwardian and even later references. In developer-speak, the brash little villas of the 1930s are now “traditional”. No they are not: traditional houses were not industrially constructed of mass-produced red brick and pebbledash for a start, let alone steel girders. Even if we go back further, much of what is perceived as English tradition was in fact the product of upper class Victorian imaginations. Many of our so-called traditions date no further back than that, even if they were in some ways romanticised re-interpretations of medieval times. Real traditions were not for the most part bourgeois, and were often crueller than the fey character of much modern ‘folk’ music . Proper traditional music is complex, sometimes dark and even raucous, far from the twee modern perception.

Here is the root of the English identity crisis: by sanitising and then annihilating true English traditions, bourgeois Victorians and their successors arguably severed the connection between the ordinary people of this country and their real identity. They imposed a ‘respectable’ replacement which required conformism rather than active participation, and which lost its emotional connection to the people and their terroir. Once that root had been cut, English culture lost its ability to stand up to outside influences. This is perhaps one of the reasons why, in the 20th Century, American culture made such inroads (obviously, the shared language was another). It perhaps explains why modern English culture has had to cast around so widely for other influences to give it some substance: it has lost all of its own. It may explain why a certain sort of English person is so in love with the cultures of the continent: it is a distinctiveness they perceive they lack themselves.

And it may also explain why, even in very recent times, the English in particular have struggled with the multiculturalism bought by both immigration and membership of the European Union. When one’s own culture is weak to the point of invisibility, the arrival of other, strong cultures might seem like more of a threat than it would otherwise be.

I am not by any means defending monoculturalism; I love the experience of other cultures. But I love their distinctiveness as well as their interface. Cultural exchange is fine, but finest of all if done on equal terms. And part of the English problem is perhaps that much of the population has no genuine ownership of, or even perception of, its own cultural identity. What is perceived as being English is largely imposed upper class mores of which they have little real possession; what most actually have instead is anonymous, transatlantic commercial pap.

I think it is no coincidence that those parts of Britain that are most pro-European are those with the strongest cultural identities of their own. In the case of our big cities, that is because multiculturalism already is the culture, while in Scotland and Ireland the culture is now so resurgent, that the perceived threat from in-comers is perhaps lessened. (It is also worth noting, however, that this situation was not achieved without a struggle to be free of the same bourgeois English impositions.)

And it is also no coincidence that these are British cultures that I identify most strongly with, even though I have no roots in those areas. They offer me a form of Britishness that is frankly more distinctive, dynamic and vibrant than my own invisible English one. It’s worth noting that Scottish and Irish music is hugely popular right across the continent, and further.

So I’m really not sure about the gent who wanted to “get his (multicultural) nation back”. I sympathise with his feelings – but I also believe that the whole experience would have been happier and less confrontational had the ordinary identity of these islands, and England in particular, not been diluted almost to the point of extinction in the first place.

The current prime minister described citizens of the world as being citizens of nowhere. The reason that she is wrong is that for many of them, internationalised modernity is quite capable of co-existing with a traditional identity that anchors their outward-looking present in a secure historical and geographical sense of self. What she missed about Europeanisation, as do Brexiters generally, is that it is not about the abolition of distinct cultural identities so much as their meeting, as equals, to celebrate their distinctiveness and their commonalities.

It is only people who have no secure identity of their own to begin with, who will feel threatened by this.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Significance of Flags

maladiere

This is the Maladière roundabout in Lausanne, Switzerland. If you arrive in the city by motorway from the west, this is where you end up. I remember it clearly from my first visit over thirty years ago. Lausanne is, of course, global home of the International Olympic Committee, and so proud is the city of this fact, that it has adorned the roundabout with over thirty-five flagpoles, from each of which flutter white Olympic flags. On most days, this presents a joyous and animated gateway to the city: it is quite a sight. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the roundabout, for all that I have passed it many times – and on the day Google Earth was there, there was clearly no wind. But you get the idea.

The U.K. doesn’t really have a tradition of mass flag flying, which is a pity as it is one of the windiest countries in Europe. And while we do have a fondness for our rather garish flag itself, we perhaps underestimate the importance of such things in the symbolism of nation-building. In fact, that activity is something else that has never really been felt necessary in a democratic way either. Most of the ‘wind’ hitherto generated in this country was dedicated to bigging-up the Empire (and post-Empire), and the upper classes whom it most benefitted. It was rarely inclusive. And now that flag has been significantly misappropriated by the far Right anyway.

The Europhile introspection in Britain, about where it all went wrong, shows little sign of abating. It seems increasingly accepted that the case for Britain in Europe was not lost in spring 2016 – but over the forty preceding years in which absolutely no convincing case whatsoever was made to the British people at large, as to why they should begin to see themselves as part of a European whole. The cynic in me suspects that this was entirely deliberate on the part of the political classes – as one article I read recently suggested, the U.K. saw its relationship with the continent as solely mercantile. It still does.

The next photo perhaps underlines the importance of flags: those of all the nations flying outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

EU-Flags

As well as animating an otherwise rather dull open space, this sends a powerful message, one seen frequently all over the continent, where the EU flag routinely flies alongside national and regional ones on city halls and other public buildings.

It’s not that we don’t understand this significance in Britain: we are more than happy for the flags of Australia and New Zealand, for example, to incorporate the Union Jack. I wonder how we would feel, though, if it became a requirement to incorporate the gold stars into national flags in the same way. I suspect that might be a step too far for even the most communitaire of European Commissions. In the U.K., it was controversial enough to put the stars on car registration plates, prompting a backlash from the nationalists that one still doesn’t see anywhere else.

flags

My last photo shows the exterior of Essex County Hall in Chelmsford taken a couple of weeks ago. There are four flag poles by the main entrance – quite excessive by British standards. The Essex, England and UK flags are all present – and one empty pole. I don’t ever recall seeing this occupied by the logical next step in the sequence, in thirty years of living in the area, though I may have missed it…

It has always been unusual to see the EU flag flying in Britain – so much so that I normally stopped and double-took in pride when did I see it. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

In amongst all the media campaigns being organised to promote Remain, it might not have been a bad thing if, at some point in the past, there had been a concerted campaign to fly the EU flag across the country. I think the effect over those forty years would have been far more powerful.

Opinion & Thought

Peter Pan

bdcard

Another year recently added to the personal clock. A relative sent me the birthday card shown above.

It prompted a train of thought about how people behave in contemporary society – and what, if anything, constitutes the way they ‘should’ behave.  I feel I increasingly rejoice in what I suspect is the (sole?) benefit of ageing – greater experience and better judgment – but I suspect others just think I’m old before my time….

Etiquette maybe an old-fashioned word – but in many ways it is still relevant. There are just as many expectations around how people ‘should’ conduct themselves in society as ever there were – it is just that they are different ones. It is now expected that people will be ‘studiedly’ casual in everything they do. If you are not, you are at best un-cool, and at worst, out-cast. But this is just as much a ‘social pose’ as any other approach – one that involves playing the child.

At the risk of taking the birthday card too seriously, the caption claims that we are forever children inside. When I was a child, my mother taught me, “If in trouble, go to an adult for help”. Having now been an adult for far longer than I was a child, I can appreciate both the sense and the naivety in that comment: one might expect adults to have more control and a clearer perspective on the world, and to know how to sort out its difficulties. In truth, it is often not so.

There is no point at which we suddenly start feeling ‘grown up’. In fact, that sensation is probably more often experienced by those who aren’t. If there is a definable watershed, it perhaps comes in one’s mid-twenties, at which point one’s brain is finally biologically mature – but even then, there is no sensation of crossing a Rubicon, more of a gradual consolidation of one’s sense of self. And all too often, biological maturity seems to precipitate an urge to act the child once again, even before second childhood arrives…

We are confronted by a society that widely seems to want us to deny our adulthood. Everything from the way the media communicates to the way retailers promote their products now aims at our ‘inner child’. Much advertising targets an immature inability to resist gratification, to spoil ourselves, to give in to temptation in a way that one might have hoped a fully-formed adult would be able to override. Real adults exercise discrimination and restraint – don’t they?

The media too, seems to treat people as though they are inexpert, narcissistic children, endlessly seeking the next infotainment buzz. It tends to assume powers of understanding, analysis and attention that are more childlike than adult. Hence the term ‘kidult’ has become an important moniker of our time.

Some years ago, I took a party of colleagues to meet their counterparts in our partner-school in Switzerland. The Swiss head teacher treated us to lunch at a rather chic riverside restaurant in Basel. The Swiss turned up in their habitual understated, smart-casual wear for what was a partly-professional occasion, and some of the British managed to look not totally dishevelled too. But one character from our party appeared wearing open sandals, shabby cargo shorts, and an un-tucked, un-ironed lightweight check shirt that barely concealed his more-than-ample midriff.

He and I both chose a first-course that looked appealing: scallops. But when they arrived, they proved unexpectedly challenging, as they were raw. In order to maintain ‘form’, I struggled through a dish that was undoubtedly fashionable, but not actually to my liking – but my colleague turned his nose up, pushed the plate aside in the way a child might do – and ordered yet another beer. In the following days, the same individual also proved inept at engaging with the other social aspects of the visit in the grown-up way that is still the norm in Switzerland. The impression that this individual created, I later learned, was somewhat incredulous. It might not have been a big deal – except he was our headmaster.

You might be wondering what on earth this has with a blog called Sprezzatura about living well.

When it comes to good living, beauty can only be in the eye of the beholder – and yet a degree of wider social consensus still forms around what is desirable and what is not. Living well is, to some extent, about ‘form’.

This goes for personal behaviour as much as anything else. Some of this is social pressure, some of it genuine aesthetics at work. It is also true, I believe, that maturity brings with it the ability to appreciate things that one found inaccessible as a child; wine and classical music are examples that come to mind. Many of the ‘good things in life’ demand a degree of experience that allows one to refine one’s taste, a maturity of judgement that children simply don’t have. The ability to scrutinise and assess requires both a perspective born of experience and a level of objectivity that also hopefully comes with maturity. That consensus around the ‘good things’ might be deemed to be an unwanted social imposition – but I believe the things that comprise it are there for a reason: they are indeed widely found to be good.

It is no doubt true, however, that expectations are not the same everywhere: my boss’ error was in part his misjudgement of the differences between Swiss and British norms – though why he failed to get this right when others had done so might be more complex. Likewise, dressing the ‘full Italian’ in Britain is likely to attract unhelpful attention simply because the norms are different, and peer-pressure still counts.

Where the ‘truth’ might lie on this is even more difficult. On the one hand, I think that claiming that modern British society is a free-for-all for self-expression is disingenuous. It is just that the conventions are now those of kidults who have never in their heads actually got beyond twelve years of age. Expertise has been rejected in favour of ignorance in everything from dining to national politics; childishness has trumped mature judgment.

On the other hand, I think that birthday card is correct: inside, we are still the same people we have always been, it’s just that we adapt to society’s rules. In that sense, one could argue that allowing our inner child to escape is actually social progress: it frees people from the straight-jacket of needless, imposed social convention. But the pressures to conform are still there, only the criteria are now turned on their heads: anyone who chooses to behave differently risks being seen, however harmlessly, as stodgy, old-fashioned, eccentric, or ‘taking themselves too seriously’. The effort required to learn to speak and write well, think well, eat well, dress well – and generally live well – is something to mock, rather than admire.

What has actually happened is that one social convention has been replaced by another. Moreover, those influencing this have good reasons for doing so: by definition, kidults lack the developed critical faculties of fully-formed adults. They are more egocentric, less able to defer gratification, more prone to emotional outbursts – and less likely to have fully-formed views of their own. They are also more easily manipulated by others.

All of which suits those in society who have most to gain from keeping the bulk of the population in the state of uncritical self-indulgence in which they will spend the most and vote for who and what they are told.

Michael Bywater once wrote that caring for one’s outward presentation (and inner substance) is not vain; it is a form of respect for the others whom one encounters – to which I might add also for oneself – and the diverse situations and roles that we assume as adults. It acknowledges that this world is capable of delivering sublime experiences that require effort to appreciate – but it also presents us with difficulties and challenges, the best response to which is not a childish hissy-fit. What may seem to be fundamentally a trivial matter does have more serious implications – as my boss showed when he blew his credibility at that Swiss restaurant.

More worryingly, hissy-fits seem increasingly to be the way in which our serious matters are conducted too. I experienced this myself in the workplace, in the juvenile way those who discredited me resorted to dirty, childish tricks to get their way. A relative of mine is currently experiencing the same spiteful, childish treatment – because she had the professional maturity report some blatant malpractice. The same has infected our politics – from the inability of those in Parliament to make adult decisions (they seem to think that running the nation is just some sort of game for the uber-privileged) to the sheer spite in the behaviour of some throwing their toys out of the pram – and never was an analogy more apt – on both sides of the Brexit debate.

Whatever happened to the ability to run our affairs in a measured, mature way?

I doubt there is a simple answer to this; it is surely true that people should be able to live (within reason) as they choose. If that involves kidding themselves that they are Peter Pan, then so be it. When it comes to dealing with the life in the round, the ability to connect with one’s inner child may not be a problem – but an inability to connect with one’s inner adult most definitely is.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

“Why would I need to?”

Donald Rumsfeld probably deserved flak for a lot of things. But not the one that he took most for. His 2002 speech about Unknown Unknowns was entirely logical, if a little hard on the ear. In it, he identified a critical issue in human understanding – the problem that we don’t know what we don’t know. It is an issue that is repeatedly underplayed, because it seems like too much of an admission of the limits of human capabilities.

I don’t want to revisit the political aspects of Brexit again here – because I think that, if anything, the cultural aspects of the matter are more interesting, if more intractable. Even if the U.K. manages to find a political resolution to its current difficulties, the other aspects of our relationship with the continent will endure. Brexit has sparked a massive bout of introspection on the part of this nation, but for all of it, I can’t help thinking that we are still a long way from getting to the root of the problem: that requires a depth of insight that is simply not within the experience of most Britons. For the vast majority, the rest of Europe remains either the source of original evil, or a kind of cultural theme park where we take our holidays. Most of the resolution to this lies within the realm of what we don’t know we don’t know, within layers of cultural conditioning so deep that we don’t even know they’re there.

I remember the first time I met a French person who had never been to the U.K. I asked why. “Why would I need to?” was the answer. And in that single reply lies the whole problem for British understanding. It prompted in me a moment of introspection that I doubt many Britons have had. For the simple fact is, for the majority of Europeans, Britain is not the exceptional place that those who live here still believe it is. It is certainly not central to the functioning of their lives.

And yet many in Britain even today still struggle with the idea that their island is not ‘normal’ – nor the centre of the world as they have always believed.

Arrive in Dublin from Holyhead, and you will encounter a very functional working port, and it is immediately obvious that the whole of Ireland is, by virtue of its geography, heavily dependent on imports. Arrival in Dover from Calais doesn’t have quite the same impact, because private vehicles appear to make up the dominant flow – but one only needs to consider the fact that some 10,000 lorries pass through it each day to remember that Britain’s island nature makes us equally dependent on the outside world: in purely physical terms, we live in a place relatively apart from the bulk of human activity. And yet this is so ‘normal’ to Britons that the perceptual distortions that it causes remain for many, unknown unknowns. One might ponder the real reasons why many Britons say they prefer it this way.

One of main consequences of island-living is a very real inability to see what happens elsewhere – and this has the effect of making island cultures habitually inward-looking and self-referential. It is not only the British: the Japanese are in some ways our best comparator here, and they exhibit a rather similar bi-polar attitude to the wider world. What’s more, that very inward-lookingness means we often fail to notice potentially useful parallels even on our doorstep: the British have historically considered the Irish to be provincial and inward-looking, without seeing that the same could be said about them, when seen from the continent. “Why would I need to?” could just as easily be an English response to the prospect of visiting Ireland.

History shows us a thing or two about how the British treat other places: as Nesrine Malik pointed out in The Guardian recently, the British state has been a “machine for running and exploring the world” – but that obsession has left it not much good at modern state-building on the home front. Most of the effort went into building belief in a national brand whose main focus was external – except to the extent that it benefitted the ruling classes. It was largely blind to the need to build an efficient and equitable society at home, which is why even today much of the country suffers from poor infrastructure compared to our neighbours. Britain’s historic treatment of Ireland is also informative here: under British rule, Ireland was impoverished and neglected (unless you were part of the imported aristocracy); under the auspices of the EU, it has received investment and infrastructure, and has thrived – at least in relative terms. No wonder the Irish are Remainers.

The problem boils down to one of pluralism: an island state like Britain has a very different conception of itself from a continental one. When your national frontiers largely correspond with the limits of your land mass, the nation-state assumes a significance that it can never quite achieve on a continent, where one is ever-mindful that one’s nation is indisputably but one part of a larger whole. In Britain, one is rarely forced to accept such pluralities – and where we have to, in Ireland – we have not dealt with them well, even as recently as 2016, where it scarcely featured in the Brexit debate.

It is simply impossible in Britain to do the equivalent of what I have done many times in Switzerland: to sit in a tower-block in the Novartis Campus in Basel and look down on everyday life continuing quite normally in three countries, complete with language and cultural differences – all within a radius of a few tens of metres. It’s not true that everything is sweetness and light: the Swiss-German border seems more porous than the Swiss-French one, not least because of cultural affinities, but it is also possible to detect more antipathy towards the French than the Germans in that part of Switzerland. But above and beyond such sentiments – or perhaps because of them – one is daily reminded that one’s nation-state is not all there is to it. History only serves to reinforce that fact.

It takes a long time to appreciate the perceptual differences that this can foster. I have visited Switzerland perhaps thirty times in as many years, and have got to know local people well. I have had similar, if less protracted contact with others in several other countries. You need to spend serious time, and get to know them as individuals (as you would at home) before these things become visible. You need to reach the point where nationality as an issue becomes almost invisible.

The most obvious is the fact that continentals’ mindset operates at a supra-national scale: going to another country is ‘normal’, not novel. For quite a few, it is just a short drive away. They think little more of it than a Briton does when moving between Scotland, Wales and England. It means that co-operation across those borders is natural to the point of itself being an ‘unknown unknown’ issue – it is just taken for granted that that is the way the world is. Understanding this also rams home just what a tragedy Twentieth Century history was for those nations, in a way that, yet again, Britain could only observe from a semi-detached position.

Yet the basic facts of Geography mean that such interaction does not happen so naturally with respect to the British Isles. I suspect that the vast majority of British people even today have no regular contact with people on the continent – and probably vice versa. Where it does happen, it is most likely to be with ex-pats, who are by definition not locals. Going on holiday for a week or two simply will not do it: you need to sit in locals’ homes, socialise with them, visit their work places, live their daily lives with them before it even starts to soak in. You need to see them no differently from how you would see people who live in a different county.

And then you start to realise that they are indeed operating rather different software. They do not have the same deference to hierarchy; wealth is less directly linked to social status and particularly in republics, the sense that the People (rather than the monarchy) are the State, I believe makes a tangible difference to how they live their lives, the sense of ownership they exhibit towards their countries, the sense that their nations are collective, joint endeavours, rather than being run largely for the benefit of a small elite as is still the case in Britain.

It works the other way too, of course. Britain is just as remote to continentals, indeed more so, because if you have no business there, “why would you need” to visit? It is the same attitude that many British manifest towards Ireland – a remote, offshore place whose habits we don’t quite understand.

But the continentals, too, made one fundamental mistake in their relationship with Britain which they are only now discovering: they assumed that Britain was just another European nation, just like their own. They failed to comprehend the issues of island-hood just as we fail to comprehend their continental-ness. Our inability to explain them ourselves, did not help.

Their inability to see daily life here led them to conclude that the British Establishment’s projections of life in the higher echelons (as encountered through, for example, the diplomatic service) were an accurate representation of the true nature and mentality of the nation – which of course, they are not. To this day, I am often surprised by the strength of the upper-class stereotypes some continentals hold about the British.

They failed to appreciate the complexity of these islands – as some of their politicians admitted when they belatedly took a visit to the border lands of Ireland. The easy assumption that “we are all Europeans now” failed to allow for the superstitions of those who geographically can never be fully part of the continental project – but whose more significant frontiers are in the mind. They don’t understand the exceptionalism that insular geography creates – and they don’t know how to interact with it, because all their normal continental assumptions about the need for international co-operation, co-habitation and the Greater Good simply don’t work with a self-contained island race.

It has always been thus, even to the highest levels: British policy documents over the decades reveal repeated references to Britain’s ‘national interest’ in its European dealings. Well, all countries have national interests, of course – but in Britain’s case, the tone clearly presupposes a conflict between national and international interests; it is one of aggressive competitiveness, very rarely of the General European Good. One is left with the sense that such notions are unknown unknowns.

My repeated visits to the continent gradually shifted my perception; my default mental map is now that of Europe – with Britain stuck in its marginal position in the top left-hand corner. But in reaching this position, I also started to glimpse the different assumptions that operate on the continent as a result: the emphasis of nations there on the common societal good – a term one rarely hears convincingly expressed in Britain, where ‘Society’ is either insignificant – or a never-ending class struggle. It is shown in the way many continental countries are innovating in everything from social rights to environmental good practice – while at the same moment in time, Britain is discussing rolling back Human Rights post Brexit. What greater contrast does one need?

My experiences of the continent repeatedly suggest that those countries – under the umbrella of the EU – are making far more progress in terms of building good societies than is Britain. While there are always exceptions, people there generally live in better homes, more pleasant towns, they drive on better roads, travel in better trains, have more workplace and democratic rights, have less atomised communities, take their environmental responsibilities more seriously, they have less corrupted legislatures, and they generally have a more optimistic, positive view of life, than is common in this country. What’s more, fewer of them seem obsessed with wealth and celebrity and overt competitiveness – simply because getting on with normal life is not the trial for most, which it has increasingly become in Britain as the elite has sucked in more and more of our nation’s resources for itself.

And yet, the conversation in Britain, for all the soul-searching, betrays little evidence that these things are really known. Until we start to tackle these things, our chances of really addressing those highly significant differences in world-view between us and our neighbours will remain – Unknown.

I explored the issues discussed here in more detail in my book ‘It’s a Bit Late for that Now!’  available in paperback and e-book on Amazon.

Food, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

pv

One perhaps might have expected Sprezzatura to be mourning the loss of Patisserie Valerie – but I can’t. It occurred to me that the company’s recent difficulties are symptomatic of the bigger issues swilling around in British civil life at present.

What started out in 1926 as a single, much-loved cafe founded by the eponymous Belgian émigrée spawned several other branches in London without losing too much of its historic character. I only visited once, but it was like walking off a London street straight into a small corner of northern France. But then it was taken over by an ‘entrepreneur’. Eventually a large share was sold to venture capitalists, and it was rolled out as a chain of some 200 outlets. It became a shadow of what it had been, little more than a themed pastiche of the original. As David Mitchell wrote in The Observer, like all chains, the original cafe’s identity became little more than a watered-down ‘front’ for yet another cash-conveyer for big business.

As I have bemoaned before, the same fate befell Costa Coffee a couple of decades ago. What had been characterful, family-run Italian coffee bars beamed down in London was acquired by Whitbread, and turned into the clone empire that we see today. To be fair, in both cases the quality of the product has not suffered too much, though I have always bemoaned the lack of alcohol in some of Valerie’s offerings: Black Forest gateau is just not the same without (expensive) kirsch. Costa’s coffee remains markedly better than its competitors, despite its susceptibility for the usual marketing-led seasonal gimmicks. (Drive-through Costa, on the other hand, is just too far removed from the real culture of coffee not to be an abomination).

The intangible character of both institutions, which played an essential if indefinable part in making them what they were, has been utterly obliterated beneath the disposable stage-dressing of the corporate shop-fit. As Mitchell says, the identity of chain outlets is essentially interchangeable; in aesthetic terms, there is nothing to stop a Valerie becoming a Pizza Hut next week and a McDonald’s the week after. It is all just window-dressing; the honest, unique character has gone forever, as have the eccentricities that corporate-land just doesn’t understand and can’t tolerate. With what’s left, Established 1926 is now close to being just another corporate lie.

It is perhaps no surprise, too, that with the growth of the organisation far beyond the original family business, it took on corporate individuals who turned out to be fully prepared to bankrupt it in pursuit of their own wealth. Large conglomerates rarely command the loyalty that begets the integrity needed to cultivate such business in the long term.

But how is this representative of the nation’s wider woes? It seems pretty generally accepted that Brexit was motivated by the disaffection of the ‘left-behind’ classes in their hollowed-out out provincial towns. The spread of Patisserie Valerie may have brought a little panache to such places, a shallow semblance of national cohesion and democratisation – but its likely and equally summary departure will leave behind yet more empty premises.

The real problem runs deeper than that, though: by their presence in such places, chains contributed to the siphoning-off of local wealth and its transfer to large corporations. And as with Starbucks before them, they may well have killed off local businesses which, while possibly not as glossy, at least had local roots, and ploughed their income back into their communities. Being small, they also often had the character and quirkiness that no mass-produced chain can ever replicate. And by being so, they also contributed to a local sense of place. In their stead, one senses lost local autonomy – these ‘outlets’ are run by and for people a long way away, with no local knowledge or concern, each place they land on just another ‘retail opportunity’ to add to the corporate bottom line.

It has to be admitted that small businesses in France are also retreating – but the Italians seem largely to be holding out. One might also ponder the amount of employment that hundreds of small, local cafes and restaurants create – I suspect rather more, and for different people, than the chains that ousted them.

One might have welcomed the arrival of cafe culture in this country – and with it the glories of the traditional French patisserie. But in typical British style, what we actually got was large conglomerates selling watered-down facsimiles of the real thing on an industrial scale. Not at all the same thing as the multitude of such places that still give towns in France and Italy their appeal. How do they get away with it? Why will the British populace accept this, in a way which their peers in France or Italy just would not? (And come to think of it why, as Mitchell also observes, is the British mainstay not the millefeuille but the iced bun? Maybe that explains a lot…)

The emergence of these chains is explained solely by a political culture in this country that embraces big corporations with little thought for their impact on communities or local economies. That they suck wealth out of provincial centres and into metropolitan corporations is no problem for governments in thrall to The City. But it feels very different from the other end of the line: the turning of our regional centres into clone towns, dominated by large extractive businesses, feels wrong. And while even a Starbucks may be preferable to an empty building, the blighting effect of large chains on local businesses is not imaginary.

It has contributed to a very immediate, local sense that the whole country is being run by, and for the exclusive benefit of, big business – absorbing and bastardising any good concept from which it can make a buck, sweeping all before its own selfish interests, be that the quality of the Black Forest gateau or the proper employment and training of local staff. One only has to enter an independent cafe or restaurant to notice that the whole character and ethos of such places is different: somehow more authentic, more distinctive, closer to those on the continent.

To be fair, Luke Johnson (still the majority owner of Valerie) has tried to do the honourable thing, ploughing in his own wealth to save the company and its employees. But big business simply does not work in the same way as small – investors are anonymous and impersonal, and care about little other than their dividends. And with a staff of thousands, there is simply no way one can retain the personal touch.

I can’t help but feel that this corporatisation of Britain and the sterilisation of the social function of places like cafes, bars and restaurants, have contributed to the wider disaffection. Unlike the pride that a good, proprietor-owned cafe often takes in its products and its relationship with customers, chains are impersonal, transient and lacking in any real character. They could, by definition, be anywhere. People are served mass-produced, dumbed-down ‘product’ whose main purpose is to minimise corporate overheads, in bland surroundings whose main purpose is to be cheaply replicable anywhere – and easily disposable when the time comes for a corporate re-brand.

People have been given the choice between no services and corporate giants, and to anyone concerned about local distinctiveness – let alone the quality of the cake – it does all feel very wrong. It’s not surprising that people feel alienated. But we can’t absolve the wider population either: for all that the choices may have been limited, these chains have only flourished because of the indiscriminate willingness of the population to be served cheap, conveyor-belt food and drink in cardboard cut-out surroundings, when they could have been supporting authentic local alternatives.

To that extent, the nation has once again got what it deserves: a whole country that is little more than a dumbed-down clone of itself, largely run for the benefit of a few shareholders.  A rootless Anywheresville of non-communities which makes life itself feel fake – and only now, when it may be too late, is it realising the cost of its obsession with cheapness, gimmickry and its acceptance of bland uniformity.

Like the Brexit decision which resulted, it could all have been so different.