Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

In praise of neckwear

Maybe we need a bit of frivoli-tie? Recent posts here have largely been about the gravity of our present situation; hardly escapable really, but I think we need to keep something for the lighter, but still intriguing side of life too. So this post is about the globally-serious matter that is the demise of the male necktie.

I have little doubt that I will end up convincing readers of nothing more than the fact that I am one kipper short of the full cravatte, but nonetheless, such gentle matters pertaining to the quality of life of at least some of us should, I believe, command an occasional place in our attention.

My father spent most of his working life showing young people the methods of craftsmanship and design that came from his teacher training in practical subjects and as a cabinet maker. After hours, he switched to the tennis court, as was a qualified coach. But he refused to allow anyone to participate in either activity if they were not properly dressed. In his view this was again a largely practical matter, but he nonetheless maintained that you would not do your best work unless you felt the part – and an important part of that was being decked out appropriately. For tennis, it was whites or nothing.

I guess it rubbed off; I have always dressed for my own work in what I felt to be a manner of suitable gravitas, and I think there was probably more than one occasion where looking the part played to my advantage, even if I didn’t fully deserve it… I think I had learned to appreciate good craftsmanship, too.

So it has been a pleasure, on returning to professional work, to bring out items that had barely seen the light of day for some years. Despite the pretty relaxed approach of most of the staff at the College where I work, I make a point of wearing what was once considered normal professional garb, albeit notched down a peg or two to jacket-and-tie rather than a suit.  I do it partly as a matter of forme professionelle – but mainly just because I like those clothes.

The sad thing is, opportunities to wear such items have been in free-fall in recent times; for many, I suspect that weddings and funerals, and perhaps interviews, are the only occasion when they don an otherwise unfamiliar item.

Dress-down Friday seems increasingly to have invaded the rest of the working week in recent years, and of course remote working means you can get away with almost anything. Ironically, given that DDF is originally an American invention, at least a proportion of the men of that nation still seem to pay more regard to sartorial matters than we Brits, and while the same trend has clearly spread to continental Europe, the still-present preoccupation of French and Italian males in particular with sartorial form is of course legendary.

Yet in these times of individual liberty, dress-down has had a contrary effect: anyone wishing to raise their game a bit in this respect increasingly easily risks looking over-stuffed and out of place. The necktie suffers particularly badly here: they have become the symbol par excellence of old-fashioned male formality, and therefore inconsistent with the laid-back modern dude… Many men seem to hate them, so they are the first thing to go, but I am not sure why. Are they really that uncomfortable? It is all the more surprising, since other neck-accessories such as scarves seem to have experienced boom times recently. Perhaps it’s the conno-tie-tions with workplace conformism that is the real issue here? But we should remember that there is more than one way to ‘wear’ a tie, and that those emblems of the Sixties social revolution, The Beatles, were often photographed wearing (and indeed performing in) them. Studiedly narrow, of course.

I think the thing that appeals to me about the tie is its potential for a degree of personal expression – and I’m not only thinking of certain messages sent by comic ties… Originally, the tie was the centrepiece of a man’s at-tie-re. It’s really about the potential for subtle signalling. Socks have the same potential, and they too have been experiencing a significant resurgence of interest in recent times. So why not ties?

Maybe the relaxation of sartorial diktat means that there is no need for such small acts any more – though that doesn’t explain the renewed popularity of those other accessories. Maybe it simply comes down to comfort? Because there is no doubt that a tie and done-up top button feels less relaxed than people seem to prefer nowadays; I am not suggesting I would want to sit at home in one, either. But not all occasions are the same.

That loss of signalling ability has further-reaching implications, of which perhaps the most significant is the loss of a sense of occasion that can accompany dressing well. I remember the writer Michael Bywater saying that doing so is not narcissistic, but a courtesy to others since it is largely they who gain the pleasure from your efforts. It says you think they are worth it; perhaps we no longer do.

What’s more, the way in which a tie is worn sends subtle mood-messages, from the simple-or-showy choice of knot, to the semi-undone end-of-evening, worse-for-wear effect. And that is before even considering the effect of bow-ties, whether hand- or ready-tied, done or undone and just draped round the neck; there is a world of subtle social signalling about the tie that is simply lost to the non-wearer.

A tie is a relatively inexpensive way of turning a set of standard garments into a different outfit, and in that sense no different from using jewellery or other accessories to the same effect. I am less keen on some of the symbolism – the Old School Tie and the Regimental Tie both have connotations that I find stiff and undesirable – but there is the simple matter of an appreciation of beautiful colour and pattern; the tie as minor artwork, simply an item of wearable beauty – and why should men be deprived of this?

I remember once shocking a colleague by admitting that I was prepared to spend a fair amount of money on something that he saw as a complete waste. A cheap tie is very likely not to be worth it and will quickly end up looking like a rag round your neck. A properly crafted one, on the other hand is indeed a minor work of art. Hand-made ties have five, six or seven folds, and this gives them a ‘body’ and artisanal effect without the need for interlining, that a slip of mass-produced viscose just cannot match. It means they will hang well, even after long and repeated wearing; the best have a runner thread the length of the reverse, pulling on which will straighten out any crumples at the end of the day. Personally, I feel that silk is the optimal material, since a beautiful tie needs to hang close to the body, and move well with that body; but wool, linen and even leather all have their place. I think that woven-in patterns are preferable to printed designs since they are somehow more integral with the fabric which gives rise to them and give a pleasing relief to the texture.

But perhaps most important thing of all is the almost infinite scope that ties give to the material craftsman for beauty of design, whether variations on the traditional themes, or indeed complete innovation; whether in weaving, printing or dyeing. Quite apart from anything else, such craftsmanship is a pleasure to collect and own.

As with so many of these things, the Italians are the masters, and seem relatively unencumbered by the starchy conventions of the British style. It is possible to spend crazy amounts of money on ties from classic makers such as Emarinella of Naples – but an astute purchaser can also find hand-made items much more reasonably from lesser-known makers such as Segni e Disegni in Como, the centre of Italian silk.

My guiding principle is that one doesn’t need a lot of ties – but as with almost all things, a few good quality ones are a pleasure to own and wear, and I think it is high tie-me for a revival.

I just wish more people agreed with me…

Opinion & Thought

Down with the “poncey middle class” view

A recent post by another teacher on social media expressed the hope that children supposedly being “deprived” of their education by lockdown will use the opportunity to learn about wider life experiences, and the growth to be gained from appreciating simple and immediate things, such as the natural world, the value of human relationships, creative activities, basic domesticity and cultivating one’s inner awareness. In a wider sense, it suggested, perhaps those who are learning this are not “falling behind” – but are in fact ahead of the rest.

It was followed by predictable comments about this being “all very well for the privileged middle classes” – which seems to be becoming the default criticism of anything that does not meet the approval of a certain right-on sector of the profession, and indeed society more widely.

It increasingly strikes me that there is a huge hypocrisy going on here, which – well-meaning or not – actually serves to perpetuate the social divisions that such people claim to decry. It is based on the assumption that everyone else subscribes – or should subscribe – to the aspirations of those expressing them, and that if they don’t then they are to be pitied or fretted about.

Such views are in themselves a form of social condescension; charitably, perhaps an expression of bleeding-heart guilt at the motor of middle-class social climbing, but which in the process serves to embed perceived social exclusion in those not able or not wishing to follow them. Even if I am wrong about this, the plight of the under-privileged is, in any case, surely not the only benchmark against which everything should be judged, any more than is the achievement of middle-class values the only indicator of success.

Many of the ‘simple’ things mentioned in the original comment actually have very little to do with middle class privilege; it struck me that most of them would be eminently realisable in the average African village, and it is perhaps not beyond the realm of credibility to suggest that people in such a place might indeed know more about the simple pleasures of life than many in the West credit. There have been plenty of studies suggesting that, barring the presence of food shortages, conflict, natural disasters or ill health, happiness levels often hold up quite well in the materially poorer parts of the world, perhaps even better than in places where Status Anxiety is more rife. The belief that it cannot but be otherwise is itself a privileged middle-class conceit.

In just the same way, it is entirely a middle-class conceit to believe that “poor people” in this country inevitably suffer from not being able to access the hyper-competitive, hyper-materialistic world of those who occupy it. I would not for a moment wish to underestimate the impact of real deprivation and hardship where it exists, but reaction to this serious problem is in danger of becoming used as little more than an inverted expression of middle-class angst, or a form of virtue signalling. I suspect that ‘the poor’ may suffer as much from the effects of the social pressures that such attitudes apply, than from their own circumstances. Happiness is largely a product of relative expectations.

When it comes to education, who are really the deprived? Middle-class servitude to high levels of material consumption – large vehicles, large mortgages and the large incomes needed to service them – are also a form of slavery, and those in hoc to it see education as little more than the process of validation needed to ensure their offspring continue in it. I have seen too many bad effects of hot-housing and competitive parenting to believe that it is only benign; and the cries of children ‘falling behind’ with their education are only based on assumptions of what is “not behind”, that are dictated entirely by the exam calendar and achieving the “right” (exam) results to ensure they can progress to the next stage of the conveyor belt, and ultimately to their own position in the social pecking-order. Those doing the complaining often seem to be those most locked-in to the hot-housing mentality – and perhaps least able to see the harm it can cause; the hysteria with which they often react is, to me, more indicative of those addicted to Status Anxiety than those of an excessively tolerant disposition.

Education in the U.K. (if not elsewhere) has long been dominated by middle-class social climbing, and it seems at least as bad now as ever. Widespread assumptions about the nature and necessity of education are themselves culturally dependent, and still remain driven by the societal advances that it can deliver, rather than any kind of self-development.

The teaching profession is just as guilty of this as the materially better-rewarded parts of the middle class – and their concern is now compounded by the pressures brought to bear by a system that determines their own career and income prospects by crude measures of exam outcomes.

The problem is, by perpetuating angst about Status Anxiety, and stressing about things that may compromise it, those doing it both exaggerate the divides between those who do and don’t subscribe to it and perpetuate their own captivity to a set of values that may not be as beneficial as they believe. And then they compound the matter further by insisting that there is no other valid perspective. This is not, of course, to suggest that formal education is not important, nor that the loss of specific tuition, for example in basic skills such as literacy is not seriously concerning – but there is still more to education than that.

It may be that early appreciation of “the simple life” came from privileged and rather precious members of the Very Rich who had little concept of what it really means. But that does not need to diminish the concept itself; there is plenty from cultures around the world to suggest that the deluded ones are those who continuously chase material advancement, whereas true fulfilment lies in much simpler and more eternal truths, the rediscovery of which the slowing of our hyperactive world may indeed have created space for. This need not only be possible in overheated, over-anxious middle-class environments; indeed, it may be more possible elsewhere. Who are the real prisoners here?

The most regrettable thing for me is that Education has been not only misappropriated by those in society who advance its use for fuelling Affluenza, but that that now includes the educational establishment itself. One might have hoped that it would not have sold its soul in this way and would have retained more enlightened and pluralistic views about its purpose. For me, education has always been about liberating people to make their own informed decisions about life, not about tying them into a socio-economic rat-race that does at least as much harm to people’s wellbeing as good.

If we set aside the sometimes-precious tones of those who are suggesting that lockdown may not, in general, be as educationally catastrophic as others are claiming, then the message may be worth considering. As with everything, this should be a chance for reflection: does education as it currently is, have its objectives, processes and methods right? Or should we at least be considering more fairly the alternative views? To my mind, the dogmatism with which they are currently being rejected is itself evidence of the failure of education as presently configured to develop sufficient open-mindedness with respect to what is really desirable in life.

As I said, who are really deprived?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Not the end.

You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.

Similarly, you can’t choose the nation you were born into – but there’s nothing that says you have to like it.

A couple of years ago, at the height of the ‘Brexit wars’, I declared that if Brexit ever happened, I would disown my nationality. I was fully expecting, today, to be eating my words – not because it didn’t happen, but because the futility of such a position would become overwhelming.

You can’t deny where you were born, and even if you do take different nationality, that place and your formative years there will continue to shape you throughout your life. Neither can you ignore the practicalities of the place where you live, which for personal and practical reasons will continue, for me, to be Great Britain.  It is not possible to ignore the requirements of one’s place of abode, so I will have little choice but to comply with the obligations of life this country.

Yet I am not going to eat my words – not out of pedantry, but because I find that they accurately reflect the reality of my life, and a process that has in fact been going on for many years. I find myself living in a country with whose regular culture, values and destiny I feel little affinity. All Brexit has done is to affirm that once and for all.

There were three defining points of my life in this respect: our childhood caravan holidays the length and breadth of the continent later followed up through Interrail; my deepening acquaintance from the mid-1980s with that most contradictory of European nations, Switzerland – and my multiple visits to the European Parliament, beginning at about the same time.

Even from those early days, I found poly-nationalism exciting and invigorating; never threatening in the way it seems a large segment of the British population still does. The discovery of new ways was liberating, not intimidating. Ever since I first broke bread round multinational tables, I knew this would be an important aspect of my life. It is one that Britain does not subscribe to even today; even much British “Europeanism” revels in a kind of novel exceptionalism that is anything but the real thing. (If you think Europeanism is all glossy cosmopolitanism, visit La France Profonde, or the Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples…)

My/our life today has little to do with mainstream British culture, and this is never more sharply evident than at Christmas. Being a typical British ‘bloke’ holds nothing for me. We gave up on TV decades ago, we are not interested in the mainstream music scene; we don’t do junk food, recreational shopping (seasonal or otherwise) or binge drinking. We do not dress in the scruffy, dishevelled way that is the national norm. Sport and soap operas leave us cold. But neither do we do the indulgent self-gratification of the “metropolitan elite”. Our lives are genuinely materially and culturally as influenced at least as much by what we know from elsewhere as anything from the U.K., but not for show, just for what we want and need to be.

Ever since those windows opened onto wider European life, I have increasingly doubted that the U.K. was anything like the exceptional place to live that its majority seems to think. For anyone who values civic and cultural life, even the equal dignity of all human lives, there are plenty of other places that achieve for their general citizenry a much better, and more enlightened, quality of life than this snobbery (and inverse-snobbery)-ridden one. For anyone who values cultural richness, much of the everyday experience of this country is a desert of cheapness, gimmick and disposability.

Mainstream British culture is saccharine: pulp fed to keep the masses quiet – and spending. This is a complacent nation, that would rather wallow in cloying sentiment than briskly address the realities of the age in which we live. Yet at the same time, there is little respect for real tradition or rootedness of the sort that still informs identities in many other countries – the majority here seem to prefer Disneyland, where a sanitised plastic version has replaced the real, earthy, ancient roots. This is a country that prefers to live a consumerist fantasy, while letting the many, many issues that are making it increasingly dysfunctional go unaddressed. That, after all, is the root cause of Brexit.

Covid has revealed the extent to which British civil and communal life has been withered by commercialism, commuting and long hours. The pressures have been the same everywhere – but some nations defended their cultural positions more vigorously than others. The British, having almost no other strong sense of who they are or what they stand for, simply caved in.

The effect of decades of post-Thatcherite individualism killed meaningful civil society in Britain, as has the resultant struggle for survival experienced by many as neo-liberalism cut away more and more of the civic and social infrastructure, flogging it to the private sector for a song. I struggle to identify with a country that treats its civic institutions in this way, that sees them as a source of private profit rather than collective pride and utility – and that avoids paying the taxes to sustain them. I experienced it at first hand in the lack of financial or healthcare support in my own moment of need in 2016 – and am seeing it again as it institutionally fails to cater adequately for elderly members of my own extended family in theirs.

These are real, not imagined, fractures of perspective and values over the dignity and experience of life, between the continent and the island; I see how real people fare elsewhere, and I know which I prefer. I’m not naïve enough to ignore the failures of other countries – indeed I am more confident in my views for having seen their grotty bits too – but my repeated and extended impression remains that those with whom we might reasonably compare  have not fallen as far; they still have more balanced lives and higher-minded ideals than most Britons; they have a stronger instinct to protect their social and civic infrastructure from predation and decline.

I know this country well; there is little of it I have never visited – unlike the “patriotic” part of the population that often scarcely seems to know any of it at all. As a geographer, I perhaps have more understanding of these islands’ natural marginality, in a way that the national culture chooses to ignore, let alone properly address.

This land has its natural assets, though that is hardly something its inhabitants can claim credit for – unlike their growing destruction. But from its bombastic and overblown capital, through the faceless “traditional” suburbs, to the desolation and decay of its more distant regions, I find there is little to admire about how the British live, or how they run their country. Its fabled pragmatism is in reality nothing more than an absence of higher ideals or imagination.

Inanity is now this nation’s defining characteristic – as most obviously seen in its inability to cope with the discipline required to deal with Covid. What worse indictment could there be of the nation than its track record on that score?

For me, ‘Europe’ has always been primarily a cultural matter: the embodiment (even if imagined, which in a sense is all culture ever is…) of a set of values that deliver a culturally rich, meaningful, and balanced society and life for as many as possible, that has never really existed in this country in my lifetime. At least, not if you do not belong to its ancient elite, or its new hangers-on, who have milked the country for all they can get.

The politics of Europe were simply the logical extension of a force which I had always hoped would shape this country for the better. I still think it did that – even though the mass of the population seems not to have noticed – and nowhere near as much as it could have, had it wholeheartedly embraced Europeanism as “just another European nation”.

This blog, and the Living Europe Facebook group have been founded on such values and beliefs. The blog title Sprezzatura was deliberately chosen for its connotations of a well-judged, authentic and original “good life” – but taken far beyond its origins in men’s style.

As with feelings about families and friendships, a modern sense of nationality cannot be commanded; thoughtful people see through the artifice which did that in the past. You have to earn loyalty, not demand it. In that respect, the end of 2020 marks the moment when this country decisively turned away from my own values and aspirations, needs and ideals. Why would it expect me to feel otherwise than as described above?

In that sense, I today am cutting any personal ‘interest’ I have in this country; I will do what is required to live here and nothing more – with the single exception of anything that may help to reverse the madness of its current direction. I shall ignore the chime of 11pm this evening; I will continue as before – but any personal ‘investment’ I might give to the place where I reside has now gone.

Despite my provincial English roots, I became a European, and this I shall remain, whatever the new political realities. Unlike the unavoidable practicalities, identity-loyalty cannot be commanded, only earned.

Opinion & Thought

Patience not patients

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Beware of the sharks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A parcel of rogues

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

I wonder how history will judge the current time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Crocodile tears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncategorized

U turn if you want…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncategorized

Unjust deserts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion & Thought

Prizes for all?

exam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there are bigger issues here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(This post also appears on my professional blog).