Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Because we’re all worth it…

Some years ago, we were on holiday with our Swiss friends in eastern Switzerland. Alfred decided he wanted to see inside a particularly venerable old hotel in the area, so when we passed it one day, he strode up to the reception desk and asked to have a look around. Even though none of us was remotely dressed for such a venue and clearly had no intention of checking in, we got our (unsupervised) look round, no obligation expected. Indeed, I sensed pride at this evidence of the hotel’s reputation. It is social fearlessness like this and other similar incidents, that gradually made me conclude that the Swiss are relatively unencumbered by the kind of class consciousness that might prevent many Britons from doing similarly in their own country. But then, Switzerland was founded precisely on the democratic rejection of its medieval overlords, and they seem to have kept the faith ever since…

The interesting thing about the Swiss is that despite their nation’s wealth, they mostly do not ‘do’ social showing off. Their shops abound with high quality products – even their bargain stores rarely sell complete rubbish – and yet it is hard to detect much social snobbery. (As I was told by a Swiss, “flashy” in that country is only done by expat incomers). Buying things is not widely seen as a form of recreation or statement – but when it happens, quality is to the fore. This does not seem to be regarded as the preserve of the wealthy, rather something that is just normal. Most people seem to live unostentatiously, but they still expect high quality homes, clothes, food, and services, and seem unselfconscious in their patronage of prestigious brands. “Because I’m worth it” does not have the narcissistic overtones that it does in Britain: maybe L’Oréal misjudged its message here? Compared with British consumers, the Swiss seem very considered; restrained, if quite demanding – and in control of their own behaviour.

I have seen similar elsewhere too – and I concluded, not for the first time, that it is the British who are the outliers. Somewhere, in their eagerness to consume voraciously there lies a hint of servility or guilt, as if we can only define ourselves by how much we buy. While many continental countries excel at producing high-quality commodities – with prices to match – what seems relatively absent is the idea that one is buying social status, rather than just a very good product. Whether it is an effect of their republicanism, or a lasting memory of the troubles wrought over the centuries by their elites, it seems to me that many continental nations have shed much of the class consciousness that many Britons still accept as a fact of life – that is, when they are not failing to notice it at all. It is not studied over-compensation that makes the point (which would in any case defeat it); it is just not there in any strength in the first place.

Politically-correct modern Britain, of course, denies such weakness – but a recent poll of my late-teenage students revealed that even as they claimed to be “unintimidated” by posh accents, they knew precisely what I was talking about, and perceived those who had them as “not like us”. Social class is not only a hangover preoccupation of the aristocracy – those on the other rungs still know their place just as well…

I strongly dislike this: it seems incompatible with the principles of modern democratic life which should emancipate people to be themselves – and depresses the expectations that many appear to have of their own lives. Hence the widespread tolerance of low standards and the mass-market blandness that allows producers to cut corners in pursuit of excess profit. Conversely, the attention given to conspicuous wealth feeds the status anxiety that defeats the liberating objective of genuinely good living.

As with all these matters, finding convincing explanations is difficult – but I suspect the “not for the likes of us” mindset (which is also permanently primed to snipe at anyone who disagrees) really is a legacy of enduring social polarisation, a highly uneven distribution of wealth, and perhaps a state education system that does not place enough emphasis on the non-utilitarian aspects of its purpose. We might also throw in for good measure an echo of a puritan past, an instinctive self-denying philistinism, and a climate that hardy cultivates the sensuous side of our nature. We just don’t do La Dolce Vita

So, it seems this nation is no closer to democratising its quality of life than ever. We seem utterly unable to dissociate high quality from social elitism, let alone to realise that the best way to disarm it is to refuse to be excluded by it. The masses have been encouraged to focus on the false economy of buying cheap and often (but not so cheerful), by an overly strong retail sector on which the nation’s economy is heavily dependent. Those who do take notice seem more concerned with joining in the showing-off than disarming it, encouraged (staple-gun in hand) by the battery of aspirational makeover shows on TV. But for all the national emphasis on acquiring money and prestige, there seems to be precious little collective idea what productively to do with it once one has it. Meanwhile, the real elite is left to browse the boutiques of Chelsea in peace…

The objection of expense is often raised, but this too this is something of a red herring created by flawed basic assumptions – in particular, that Quantity is important. It fails to see that buying less but better is more satisfying, and you can sometimes substitute piles of cash with thought and effort. This is surely a lesson we all need to learn, if only for the sake of the environment. 

I am mindful, though, of those for whom the only ‘choice’ available is between anything and nothing; it cannot be easy to exercise higher judgment when you are holding down three zero-hours jobs just to put food on the table. But even here, the general pressure towards conspicuous consumption can hardly help, while making different choices possible – for example by ensuring universal access to fresh rather than over-priced ‘convenience’ food must surely help. The potential gains are probably bigger at this end of society than for those who already live in the lap of luxury. For me, discernment is about thought, education and autonomy, not money – but for all the talk of good lifestyle choices, British society is still not good at helping people to make them.

A lesson from the pandemic might be that doing less but better does work. But I suspect that our conditioning is so complete, that even such rationality will struggle to overcome the blockages in many minds for why, as I have argued in the previous instalments, we too are worth it.

In the years since I could take my good mental health for granted, the things that can support a good quality of life have taken on a greater importance. It’s a tricky issue, and perhaps why many seem to duck it. It is probably dishonest to claim that our appreciation of a piece of fine cloth is only ever to do with its lustre and tactility, and never how it will make us look when we wear it. It is probably human nature to revel in our advantage and succumb to a little pampering. But I wonder whether the issue need be as convoluted as it often is in societies such as mine, that labours under the weight of centuries of ingrained social prejudice; perhaps others simply carry it more lightly.

So, to conclude this sequence of posts, here are some ideas to help combat that natural British sense of anxious self-deprecation, for which we then rush to overcompensate…

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