Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

Will the new “British Railways” be truly Great?

It is hardy news that the British national sense of self has taken a battering in the past half-decade – but in fact, the decline has been going on for far longer than that. It is deeply ironic that the political party that claims to represent most strongly the national sentiment has been most instrumental in demolishing many of the physical expressions of that nationhood, which spoke to people of a coherent sense of community no matter where they happened to live.

A nation exists to a significant extent in the minds of those who experience it; symbolism is important for fostering a sense of common identity and belonging. That in turn is important for creating familiarity with, and loyalty to, a national identity in a way that can embrace the multiple individual identities and ways of life that co-exist in any nation. Done well, they can become a source of shared pride in the institutions that we all use.

I wonder if the politicians who have spent the last four decades fragmenting and privatising most of the key institutions of this country realised what they were dismantling; not only was the disposal of the “family silver” often done at a huge mark-down, but in the process, many of the institutions that embodied the national identity of this country were abolished. We lost a sense of national infrastructure, and a significant part of our sense of cohesion as a result. I am by no means a nationalist by inclination, but that does not prevent me from regretting the way in which this nation’s symbolic institutions have been destroyed in a way that others have not permitted. Having a national “sense of self” need not be incompatible with internationalism, even if some see it otherwise: what I would like to feel about this country is that it can look its peers in the eye as equals, neither better nor worse than they.

This is not about the economic performance of sometimes-inefficient state enterprises, though experience has shown that their private replacements have been only a patchy improvement at best – but the fact that in breaking them up, an important intangible quality of nationhood was also lost. It is perhaps telling that the only one that remains reasonably intact, the NHS, has increasingly become a focus for precisely such national pride.

The infrastructure of a nation needs to stand for more than shallow commercialism; it is a statement of confidence and pride in that nation. It also represents one of the relatively few ways in which citizens can interact directly with the machinery of the State. As such, I have always felt that things like hospitals, schools, post offices and railway stations merited the best ‘identities’ that could be devised: national ikons of sorts.

If that sounds bizarre to British ears, then I can only suggest that we have become so used to seeing such interactions as a simple economic race to the bottom, that we no longer perceive the more symbolic value of belonging that can be a part of them.

Unfortunately, the organs of the British state were run down for years before they were abolished; their supposed inefficiencies were hardly surprising given the low and intermittent nature of their funding. Even in our small town of 5000, the local post office was a civic space; sadly, in its latter years it was neglected to a point of semi-decrepitude, and then replaced by a ‘position’ on the counter of a local convenience store. True to name, its extended hours are indeed convenient – but the loss of civic pride and focus was nonetheless the price we paid. Across the nation, Post Offices have been dumbed down until their civic function was all but unnoticeable.

Another major expression of this idea is the national rail network – but a quarter of a century after it too was privatised, dismantled and fragmented, it seems there is finally hope of a better future. The recent Williams-Shapps report seems to have accepted that fragmentation was a mistake, and that there is a need to re-establish a coherent, national institution.

There has already been plenty of criticism from both left and right; for some, nothing short of full renationalisation will do, while for others, anything that impedes red-blooded commercial competition is anathema. There is plenty of detail to be worked out in the next couple of years, but what matters to me is the fact that we may get a unified national institution back. And that ought to be good for the nation’s sense of self, in the way that Scotrail has become an emblem north of the border.

I’m not hung up on who ultimately runs such institutions and am not unsympathetic to the suggestion that commercial innovation is not something the State does well on its own; maybe there is indeed a place for partnership with the private sector. But I am most definitely unsympathetic to the notion that communal aspects of the State’s identity and purpose should be run solely has hard-driven commercial operations – not least because they have little or no time for the more symbolic values mentioned above. The establishment of a national co-ordinating body (even one with the naff “Great” on the front of the obvious British Railways) is a recognition that railways are inherently an integrated network, whose purpose is more societal than commercial.

If they get the branding and wider planning right, in due course we may end up with a national carrier to be as proud of as the Swiss are of theirs. The signs are again promising: the retention and up-dating of the classic double arrow symbol and the re-adoption of the Rail Alphabet font. Yes, these are seemingly-superficial aspects of a much more profound restructuring – but they can hopefully become the “shop window” for what could become a matter of national pride. I just hope that the final designs are as sleek and forward-looking as the best continental equivalents, and not some horrible, fake-heritage return to the “golden age of the Big Four” pre 1947, or some bombastic confection that majors on in-your-face Union Jacks. There are more subtle ways – but on this, I am less confident…

The key things needed are adequate funding, long-term certainty and operational freedom; if those are delivered, it will indeed be progress in this short-termist nation. The signs are surprisingly good – we now need to see them converted into practice, with simpler ticketing, more coherent timetables and trains designed for quality not capacity-maximisation. Whether the private sector will be sufficiently interested in fixed-profit concessions remains to be seen, though it presently seems they will: after the Covid bail-outs, they are in no position to argue.

Equally, it should be made impossible for them to boost their profits by cost-cutting, which is inevitably reflected in the quality of the service. I am encouraged to see this government (which I mostly despise) accepting that state oversight of state assets is a desirable thing, in the name of public service. I think that is a more major shift in mindset than has yet been realised, and it would be good to see it extended to other sectors. Covid has made clear the necessity of good public infrastructure, and the limits of the commercial sector for providing it. If a sweet spot can be found whereby private-sector skills are harnessed for the public good, in return for a reasonable payment, that is indeed very encouraging, and I think ideologically acceptable.

The key thing is that the public interest (for which read the state) that should be calling the shots, not opportunist private profiteers. That includes valuing the more symbolic aspects of national life that have been ignored for far too long: when I am moving around the country, I want to feel as though I am in the care of the State in which I travel, not just a figure on a private company’s spreadsheet.

Opinion & Thought

Full flow

One of my go-to books during times of difficulty is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and I’m currently re-reading it. By no means a trite self-help book, it offers inspiring and challenging advice on using one’s life to the full.

The author is a world-renowned psychologist, and yet he seems almost unknown to lay audiences despite his having written several general-readership books, including the one mentioned above. His work has involved collaborations across the globe, into the nature of the most fulfilling experiences that people can experience. I suspect there are many millions more who could benefit from his insight.

The important message  – and my reason for mentioning it here – might be summed up as, “it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it” that makes all the difference to a fulfilled life; something that I think is also encapsulated in the spirit of Sprezzatura. It also seems to come as close as it is possible to, to justifying the claim that there are indeed ‘better’ and ‘worse’ ways of living life. The catch, of course, is that these are not necessarily to be found in the expected places. Above all, trying to conform to external criteria about what life ‘should’ be, is doomed to failure when it comes to personal satisfaction.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that the nature of profound human satisfaction does not differ very much across the world, even between extremely different cultures – though the ways in which it is achieved may do. The principal distinction is between things that are done for their intrinsic pleasure, and those that are done with an expectation of external pay-back. Flow and drudgery can be found in the same activity; the distinction comes from the motivation and mindset involved. The book is not excessively judgemental of modern society, but it does lament the extent to which modern life, attitudes and behaviours have been increasingly driven by precisely such external interests – and correlates it with human beings’ failure to grow life-satisfaction by anything like as much as they have their material wealth.

Flow arises when having an ‘optimal experience’, to which Csikszentmihalyi gives the name “autotelic” – in other words, an activity which is its own goal or purpose; a matter, perhaps, of the journey being the destination. In the state of flow, a number of things happen, including total absorption to the extent of losing one’s conscious sense of self, and the loss of a sense of time. Also unimportant is any defined ‘reason’ for doing the activity: it is its own reason.

This is how, over time, people come to have complex experiences – in other words ones where the task is closely-matched to their competence, such that they experience neither the anxiety of inadequacy nor the boredom of under-challenge. Instead, they experience a rewarding sense of personal agency.

Another essential aspect of Flow is that the actions that create it have to be voluntary; if they are externally commanded, this puts us straight back in the realm of activities that are extrinsically defined. However, the strength of this concept is that almost no activity need be excluded; the secret is to define whatever one is doing on one’s own terms. Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of this comes from the way even people held in solitary confinement often redefine their situation in terms of tasks or challenges they set themselves to stop them losing hope or sanity. Even in the most extreme circumstances, the mind has the capacity to take control of its own actions and turn them to benefit.

The conundrum with Flow is that the more competent one becomes, the greater the demands need to be in order to maintain the required level of challenge. While this may seem unrewarding, it is actually the key benefit of the whole concept: in effect it defines the process of human growth. By accepting such challenges, we inevitably become better at things – and by doing so, we refine our understanding and appreciation in a way that moves us from ignoramus, through novice, to expert. But we still need to remember that the only way that works is to do this entirely for our own satisfaction, not for any kudos that it might bring.

And that brings us neatly back to the underpinning idea behind this blog: that almost everything in life is worth doing – but the greatest ‘worth’ comes not from just doing it any old how (as modern society often seems to suggest) but doing it well; from allowing our innate curiosity to guide us towards the niceties of life, where we increasingly refine both our competence and our appreciation of every aspect of life, simply for the self-satisfaction and personal affirmation that it brings. Thus, doing things well – that is with complexity, skill and deep appreciation – is nigh-on objectively better than doing them in a trivial, superficial and extrinsic way. Or than simply never engaging with them in the first place.

Sadly, modern attitudes to discrimination seem to have been misapplied here: those who become connoisseurs in their chosen fields often tend to be lambasted for their perceived elitism, rather than envied for the personal reward that deep appreciation and expertise can bring. Or maybe it is that they are seen and envied for somehow being superhuman, when all they have done is apply a mindset and technique that is actually available to everyone. The error is to judge them according to perceived societal (i.e. extrinsic) values, rather than appreciate that the whole point of deep appreciation and skill is not the acclaim it can bring, but the internal reward of just doing something well. The fact that Flow can be found in almost anything – even something as mundane as doing the housework – comes down to the way one approaches it, rather than the inherent nature of activity itself.

Those who look on, perhaps criticising the perceived, apparent ‘superiority’ of people who make this journey while never bothering to do so themselves, will never begin to understand by just how much they are missing the point. The point of Flow is definitively not to impress; just to lead a satisfying life. Modern life (even in lockdown) can be dull, trivial and pointless – but it doesn’t have to be; all the difference lies in our heads.

Opinion & Thought

Narcissi

In times like these, when we cannot be sure what even the practicalities of life will be like twelve months’ from now, it’s not surprising that there is much debate about what life more generally might be like in future. Writing in the latest edition of Prospect Magazine, the Archbishop of Canterbury calls for a renewed appreciation of the interdependence of people everywhere. More or less what you might expect the nation’s senior cleric to be saying – but Justin Welby is a rather more grounded individual than some of his predecessors, having worked in industry before moving into the Cloth.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that he quotes from a recent book by Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England. Carney mentions an encounter with Pope Francis, who told him, “Your job is to turn the market back into humanity”. Carney develops this theme and discusses how the ‘market economy’ has increasingly become a ‘market society’ in which things essential to a fulfilled life, such as beauty, happiness, joy and relationships have been either marginalised or commodified. For many, life has become the functional exercise in economic rationality that classical economics always pretended it is; anywhere where life is lived solely for its financial efficiency or expediency, this is in effect the case. Anywhere where non-earning life is spent in ‘recreational’ expenditure, the same force has taken hold. Imagination, culture and creativity do not often put food on the table.

I suppose that Sprezzatura blog was started to express my instinctive recoil from this. I have always found that the things that make life worth living, as opposed to tolerating, are far more diverse than those which figure in a purely economic sense. I have always been at a loss to comprehend the many who seem to find agency and self-fulfilment only in employment. Certainly, the wider experience of purposeful work can contribute many things to our lives beyond the simple meeting of economic necessity – but is that all there is to it? Over the years, I have been left with the impression that such people put so much of their time, effort and attention into their work that they inevitably neglect the rest of their lives, the things that might make them “rounded human beings”, equally competent in all aspects of their being. Even their earnings (and what they can be used for) seem of little consequence compared with the act of acquiring them. But what, fundamentally, is the point of living to work?

Bertrand Russell observed that ‘work’ is a construct devised in order to occupy people; there is truth (and probably necessity) in this. He also suggested that its effect has been to quash the necessity of devising more constructive and enjoyable ways of spending our time. He was not precious about this, emphasising the importance of play as well as highbrow activities. He argued that the constructive use of leisure is one of humanity’s last big challenges – but avoiding the issue simply leaves us facing a life of relatively meaningless toil. True, the rewards of work can be wider than this, but for many, the reality is that they spend more of their lives enriching others (not only materially) than they do themselves.

I wonder why this is acceptable. Perhaps the national mindset has something to do with it – and in recent decades, that has indeed placed Work on the high altar of life’s purposes. The expected decrease in workload that was to derive from modern technology has not happened; the work has simply changed in nature. What’s more, cutbacks may have imposed greater loads on those who remain. But I fail to understand those who, it seems, will sacrifice almost any other aspect of their lives for their work.

My mind is still troubled by the notion that so much of that effort has often gone into the furtherance of people other than ourselves, many of whom show no intention of neglecting their own lives, even as they expect that of us. I don’t see it as selfish or narcissistic to assert our own value as human beings, or to ensure that our own lives flourish too: “Attend to your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs”.

In economic terms, the capital we accrue for others yields far greater returns that the labour that we provide does for us; even in the public sector, executive pay in health and education has pulled away from that of the mainstream workforce, to the extent that I conclude that this is a functional consequence of the quasi-privatisation process. An equitable deal it is not, without our having to give them our souls as well.

All of which led to a certain reaction recently, when it was suggested that the concept of ‘the Good Life’ which Sprezzatura promotes, is self-indulgent; even rather narcissistic.

I’m not quite sure what is so wrong with the idea of a good life. I wonder if the suspicion is a hangover of the Protestant Ethic that still seems to drive our attitude to work – perhaps coupled with the class-memory of a long-hierarchical society: Life is not meant for enjoying; not if you are Us, anyhow.

I would be the first to agree that defining life only in material terms is likely to be unsatisfying and shallow. There has been enough observation of status anxiety to suggest that people who pursue fulfilment via this route rarely find it. Human psychology dictates that material possessions lose their early allure, and the only chance of rediscovering the buzz of ownership comes from buying more, of being perpetually dissatisfied. What’s more, it is all too easy to confuse the motives: where ownership of desirable possessions is perceived as the measure of both personal credibility and social standing, it is all too easy to be swept up into the cycle of mindless, competitive consumption.

I don’t think that scenario really meets the definition of a fulfilled life. But I should add, I don’t think we should feel unduly guilty about material possessions either – provided they are owned knowingly, and for the ‘right’ reasons. While they cannot bring us limitless reward, ownership of genuinely-treasured things can still make an appreciable difference to our lives.

William Morris captured it when he wrote, “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. Substitute “house” for “life” and we might have something to guide us here. The important thing is not the status that possessions (whether material or not) may bring, but the joy they can (with limitations) add to our lives, when defined purely by our own criteria. This is not narcissism, but an honest appreciation of that which enhances us.

I lack sympathy equally with those who go out to work in order to stuff their lives with status symbols, those who are too busy working to notice or care what occupies the rest of their lives – and those who deny that any kind of personal comfort or other active choice is anything other than the work of the devil.

It is true, material possessions alone do not do the job. A useful concept here comes from Aristotle:  Eudaimonia, or the concept of flourishing. That word helpfully encapsulates all those things that can lead to human development and growth, including both material enjoyment, but also the non-material values mentioned by Carney. Denying the validity of any of those things only risks diminishing our lives from what they could be in one aspect or another – and for me, Sprezzatura is the vaccine against such risks.

While the word originally refers to an approach to (male) fashion, it has wider implications for the care we devote to our lives, without becoming hidebound by externally-dictated practices. It is also notable that sprezzatura does not define a specific style, so much as the bending of the rules according to unique personal interpretation, in order to please ourselves.

It is true that sprezzatura can become narcissism, as the Peacocks of the Pitti fashion fairs show – but this is because they have lost sight of the spirit of the thing: they are out only to attract attention.

True sprezzatura, I would argue, is better balanced; it is certainly concerned with the effect that one has on the world around us – but its real motive is self-expression. Why else would it have that rebellious streak?

Recent psychological research has suggested that there are in fact two kinds of narcissism: that which really is the expression of people who love themselves just too much – and a (perhaps more common) type, which is in reality the over-compensation of those who suffer from low self-worth. I think this is a critical distinction when it comes to reading and even judging those who appear to suffer from narcissism.

All of which might leave us wondering where a reasonable balance might be found, between self-indulgence and self-denial.

There are, no doubt, as many ideas of what makes a fulfilled life as there are human beings. For all that this blog advances certain preferences, it is not its place to criticise those who have different tastes or ideas. The real problem is not those who have a different idea of fulfilment, so much as those who have none. Lives that appear empty, where external validations such as work are the only reason to live them.

Yet who am I to judge whose they might be, or what they might do about it?

The opposite of Eudaimonia is presumably some kind of emptiness, lassitude or decline: the sort of experience that has seemed common during the Pandemic lockdowns. For all our diversity, homo sapiens seems to have some fairly universal basic needs. Amongst those might be social contact and a sense of purpose, and recent times have widely challenged these things. I would go further and suggest that there is something approaching an objective measure of these things’ impact – namely our state of mental (and to some extent physical) health: more things that seem to have suffered during the past year. I also suggest that those who have a richer internal sense of self may have been better equipped to deal with such challenges. Their ‘purpose’ is their own, ongoing lives in all their facets – and those have never deserted us.

Those fundamental needs represent both a challenge and a threat. The latter because their neglect can lead us down the rabbit-holes of poor wellbeing, and the former because it may well be their constructive, autonomous cultivation that provides the sense of eudaimonia that we need to be fully well.

In simple terms, we have to eat – so we might as well make it something to be actively relished as a joyous part of life: food not just fuel. We need shelter, so we might as well make our homes places where we can feel safe, comfortable and rested. We need to dress, so we might as well do so with imagination and style, that both expresses our personalities and tastes and hopefully brighten the day of those we meet. We need to placate our restless minds – so we might as well make it fulfilling.

And so it goes on. If life is worth living, it is worth living well – both for the moment-by-moment satisfaction of doing things to our satisfaction, and for the personal growth that developing such competence and (self-) knowledge brings. That requires active reflection and discernment – things that take the time that work all too often precludes. We can make of our internal lives as much or as little as we choose, no matter what our outward circumstances. That does include their material dimension – for we cannot attend to those inner needs without attending to their outward expressions.

Neither need we pretend that it is easy; life is never smooth for long. My own recent experience shows that the possession of a ‘good life’ is not always sufficient to prevent difficult times; but I am still absolutely convinced that the same good life is part of the antidote to those difficulties. Without holding on tight to the things in life that I truly value, I would have struggled much more with the challenges of recent months and years; I would have had no Pole Star on which to focus while the currents of poor mental health pushed me hither and thither.

I cannot claim, therefore, that sprezzatura is a failsafe vaccine against adversity; but its apparent absence from people’s lives is, I suggest, indicative of something. The neglect of the basic aspects and needs of one’s life speak of individuals and society that ultimately places a low priority on its own eudaimonia. That they often splurge on meaningless consumerism, externalising their search for happiness in the act of Purchasing, is just the other side of that inner void. That, to me, is akin to having lost any sense of the meaning of life – and poor health can sometimes be the all-too-real confirmation of that. It is easy to make the fundamental mistake of thinking that both eudaimonia and sprezzatura can only have material manifestations, whereas in reality all the non-material aspects of life are at least as important, just not as visible. My understanding of sprezzatura incudes the mind as well as the body, hence many of the topics covered in this blog.

Those who look on with a protestant sense of denial or disapproval are ultimately making their own choices. But it’s worth remembering that perceptions vary around the world: there is no absolute standard for either fulfilment or narcissism. So too does the joy with which different cultures live; I am not only thinking of the original Italian version here (Latin (ex-)Catholicism comes with its own hefty dollops of sorrow) – but it is perhaps about effects which various attitudes can bring to our lives. To what extent are people following different routes really happy? At least in a secular sense, that is the only criterion that matters. I accept that true narcissism is perhaps not really a route to happiness – but I am not sure that the self-denying, empty functionalism of other lives is really any better.

I suspect that inferiority-narcissism is indeed more prevalent than the truly self-aggrandising type. And I don’t think it is harmful. Our eudaimonia might even benefit from rather more of it. The consequence not letting it loose is the prospect of undervaluing our own lives simply because of received or imposed expectations of meaning and appropriateness, and living them less than fully, simply through fear or guilt of having higher expectations of what they might be.

Hopefully, the empty, consumerist rat-race of recent decades has now been shown for what it was: in the end, other things mattered more. That better future cannot only refer to material consumption, and not to work-as-life either. It needs to refer to a more holistic and balanced understanding of what makes a good life, of living every aspect of it to the full. The important thing is that people think for themselves about what that might mean. But unappreciative denial of the good things in life – wherever they come from – is surely not part of it.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Moment Zero

Image result for moment zero

I’ve seen it said that adult life is U-shaped. Wellbeing that is – which makes one’s fifties, by all accounts, the pits. No doubt this stage in life has always been one of realisation and readjustment – but I think that those of us presently at it are, by the standards of an advanced society, having it more than a bit rough.

People who were born a decade or more earlier than us experienced the full benefits of the new Welfare State and real social mobility through the Sixties and early Seventies; they too, who benefited from uplift in property prices in the following decades. People ten or more years younger than us have yet to realise what awaits them, while still having some of the benefits of a youth passed in Nineties, and perhaps more natural inhabitants of a commercialised age where everything has its price and principles are worth little. They may yet learn.

Those of us born in the Sixties grew up with our parents’ expectations of the welfare-state nation, but also with the decline and strife of the late Seventies, an endless cycle of economic decline and industrial conflict. From it emerged the Neo-Liberalism of the Thatcher years – just as we were entering the workforce. For a while, it really did seem to be creating new optimism; for those willing and able to ride the “greed is good, no such thing as society” mantra, there were rich pickings – and the legacy mindset of ruthless egotism that has dogged this country ever since. The rest spent our working lives in a period when labour laws were rolled back, and the authority of employers strengthened –their ballooning incomes in the deregulated economy simultaneously pushing up the cost of living – read housing – for the rest.

Thirty years on, we are also the first generation to be feeling the consequences: that whose health is beginning to turn, yet whose retirement seems less secure than for several previous generations; who – if the wave of stress-related mental health is anything to go by – are burned out by decades of long hours, long commutes and unremitting pressure in that deregulated workplace – yet who have also found (as I did) that support is all but non-existent. Not all of us were able to make a killing in a decade and retire in our thirties…

What is more, it’s now our turn to be the ones with elderly parents to support. All part of life’s cycle of course – except that the State no longer offers the support it once did; retirement ages are heading upwards, while Care for the elderly has been pared back and privatised. One relative’s life savings went on paying for her last years; there are others possibly heading in the same direction. If you are neither wealthy enough to bear this, nor destitute enough to qualify for meagre state aid, you are in an unenviable position: prudence on modest means is, it seems, penalised. Even the one small silver lining of losing the older generation – the inheritance and security that may follow – now seems less and less likely when such accumulated family wealth as there is, has all been spent on old age care. Not, I hasten to add, that I would for a moment deny those people what they need in their final years.

On top of all that has come major societal upheaval. I was nine when Britain joined what became the EU; during my early adulthood that offered optimism, much of which came to pass. It was the EU that permitted extended travel to other countries, opening eyes to different ways of life; it was the EU that eventually brought a similar material standard of living to this country; it was the EU that brought blue flags to British beaches, that replaced the Highland goat tracks seen on childhood holidays with proper modern roads and regional investment. It was the EU that facilitated the large number of cultural interactions I had with the continent, not least thanks to the mindset of constructive engagement that it created.

But now all that is gone. Sadly, it is precisely this de-insularisation that Brexiters seek to reverse. Those of us who regret it will no doubt try to continue as before, though we are inevitably impacted by changes in travel and trading arrangements. But the mindset of the country is turning inward; there are too many who never experienced those benefits of EU membership or who acquired the resultant mindset, and I expect this country gradually to retreat further into its old, inward-looking ways. And so we are likely, too, to be spending the final third of our lives in a society from whose values we feel increasingly alienated.

Then came the Pandemic, the impact of which on the U.K. I hardly need to describe. Suffice it to say that it mercilessly revealed the weaknesses of every nation – only in our case, there seem to have been many more than most of the population believed. In many ways, it has highlighted a doubt I have harboured for much of my life: that the U.K. is a dated place, ill-equipped to provide most of its people with the benefits of the modern age.

Evidence for this is everywhere to be seen, from the obsession with national “heritage”, to the enduring social snobbery. It is there in the failure to recognise the glaring inequalities of the country as incompatible with civilised modern values, its acceptance of them as some kind of ‘natural order’ and its utter failure to realise that life is not like this everywhere. It is there in the belief that life for the many is an unavoidable grind. Yet it is Britain that is abnormal; it is possible to make far more just societies than this. People in Germany, for instance, do not need to blow their life savings to cope with old age; and they still have a meaningful degree of workplace and social protection from insecurity.

Britain’s worst failure after the War was to fail to move on; all its ruling class wanted to do was to reassert the hegemony of earlier times. Despite the real advances made by the Welfare State, most of life in this country since has been about the reassertion of the ancient privileges of class, inheritance, and wealth that never really went away. Certainly, the message changed: the ruling class realised that its best chance of survival lay in changing the tone, while lying low with the reality. The same elite recognised that the main threat to its existence was the EU and its promotion of real social democracy; the more evident this became, the more strident its opposition did too. Its real achievement – as always – was to steer the national story away from its own negligence and to blame ‘Brussels’ for every national ill.

In hindsight, my own Moment Zero has been coming for several years. My increased involvement in local affairs has revealed the extent to which the old Establishment interests still control even this small part of the country. The views and assumptions, the sheer sense of entitlement I have encountered belonged, as I believed, to another era – but no, they are still going strong. These are the interests that run this country, largely for their own benefit – and still believe they have a divine right to do so.

My teaching of Politics has reinforced an impression of a governmental system whose interest was in hanging onto as much elite power and privilege as it could. The interest it feigned in democracy and social justice was just that: a charade designed to ensure that the nation did not notice how little it was giving away. It is still like it; the experience of both Brexit and the Pandemic have shown the bombastic complacency with which that elite largely behaves. And yet much of the nation just accepts that its elected parliamentarians are deeply unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. It is just how things are…

It is not always intentionally malign: those people too simply found on this planet what they did. But it is embedded beyond help: even those I know, who express democratic concern – seemingly genuinely, seem to fail to recognise the sense of entitlement that underlies the assumptions about their own position in the order of things. Real understanding would make no such assumptions.

The simple fact is, this country is socially, politically and economically outdated, and decrepit beyond repair – and the more obvious this becomes, the more openly those elites act to protect their own positions, be that through blatant cronyism or strident nationalism. The replacement of the EHIC card and ERASMUS educational programmes with UK equivalents is a de facto admission that such (European) things were inherently worth having; but now they need the nationalist coercion of a Union Jack on the cover. That is the whole point: as the cracks widen and the national deception becomes unignorable, the louder will the establishment trumpet the nationalist story that it has always used to sustain it.

I am now more aware than ever that the first half-century of my life has in effect been lived through one enormous national lie: namely that we were living in the pre-eminent, democratic, liberal democracy that had a genuine commitment to equality and opportunity for all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It has taken time, age and ‘events’ finally to shine a light sufficiently strong to see that Britain’s national story is every bit as fake as those it tends to condemn in what it considers to be lesser countries. The narrative that I could not help but grow up with from 1964 onwards is actually the self-deception of an enduringly feudal society that still consents to the hegemony of a wealthy, hereditary elite which runs the place on a cocktail of aristocratic indolence, neglect, appeals to history and raw self-interest. It has utterly failed to modernise the country as was needed to bring it up to the same social democratic standards as our near neighbours; indeed, it has bolstered its own position by its opposition to this. It has failed to accept that a modern nation’s people exist to be anything more than a dumb work force to be exploited for one’s own enrichment, let alone people who need to be liberally educated, given decent standards and a real say in the running of the nation. But all that sounds, of course, “dangerously socialist” and is publicly condemned as such, by those whose interests oppose it.

Sufficient time has also elapsed to see the real impact of their policies; privatisation, we were told, would drive up standards and lead to more choice for all. In reality, it has made rentier activity more profitable than salaried. It turns out private companies abhor the much-vaunted competition; what they really seek is monopoly – captive markets that can be differentiated and milked for all they are worth – luxury and obsequiousness for those who can pay the premium; barely-concealed disdain and low-cost rubbish for everyone else. This is what we largely got, and it has reinforced social and wealth disparities as a result. Those who benefitted from the resultant massive social injustices were largely those with pre-existing wealth to invest in companies or property – in other words, that self-same establishment. The whole thing was one huge exercise in re-asserting elite establishment power at the expense of everyone else.

They tried to impose it on the continent too – the most fervent advocate of the Single Market was one Margaret Thatcher – but when it failed to dent European social capitalism, they lost interest, and finally took their moment to pull us out…

But the cat is out of the bag. Events of recent years have made the failings all but unignorable, and the level of social debate and disillusionment in the UK seems higher than ever. Even the Establishment’s precious Union is under threat, now that the Scots see the iniquity of the whole thing.

My own parents were no pillars of the Establishment; active socialists in their youth, yet ultimately, they never found the need to ask the profound questions about the nature of the country we lived in, that seem to be happening today. The self-interest of the elite is clearer than it has been for generations, likewise its real attitudes to the rest of us. The wealth disparities are unignorable; so is the physical and constitutional neglect of much of the country – its inability to cope with recent events all too obvious. That backward-looking clique may yet have sowed the seeds of its own destruction by failing to accommodate the needs and mood of a growing (and young) sector of the population.

What’s more, it can’t rely on insularity any more – those of us who have seen the reality of other countries know just how inappropriate the UK’s reality really is, and how much harm it does to the people here, who can’t see for themselves because they have never been allowed to.

When the educated sector of society no longer perceives its interest to lie in the status quo, time is often up for national elites. I feel more disorientated than ever about the place and the time where I have lived; it is hard to know what to believe when more and more of the Panglossian “truth” one grew up with is exposed as a sham. And the peak of this is the utterly British belief that “such things don’t happen here”. Well, maybe…

Those who have lived in Europe in the past 75 years have little to complain about when compared with the previous two millennia, let alone human experience across the wider world; such is the deception of modern comfort. And yet I cannot help but feel that this moment is significant, whether just in my own life or more widely – when the shackles finally fall from one’s eyes and the truth is revealed. Truth that suggests to me that this country needs to start again and rebuild from the ground up, as our neighbours did from the late ‘40s.

This country has had far too much of its fabled security and pragmatism; in tis complacency, it has failed to evolve as it needed to, and recent events have shown that to be an almost incontrovertible truth. It needs its own ZMOT (Zero Moment of Truth) from which something much better might emerge. Sadly, the renewed jingoism of the ruling class is hardly a cause for optimism; even less so, the willingness of a significant proportion of the nation to jump on board. But one thing has changed forever: I no longer believe the old myth, that this country is somehow a special, favoured, uniquely honourable place where truly bad things never happen. It might not make life more comfortable, but perhaps it is a necessary insight for the start of life’s upswing.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The great marshmallow test.

Walter Mischel first conducted the marshmallow test in 1972. Its significance lay in the correlation between the ability of children to delay their gratification for eating a marshmallow to wait for two later, and a range of later-life outcomes, ranging from career and relationship success to physical health.

I am currently reading a newly-published book, Chatter, by Ethan Kross, who turns out to be one of Mischel’s former students. His own research has been into the impact of people’s inner voices on their functioning, when they get out of control. This is a matter of interest to me after my own ‘adventures’ in mental health over the past few years, and more generally from my work as a teacher. Krall’s proposes that finding ways of mentally distancing oneself from difficulties and viewing them from a wider “zoomed-out” perspective, has the effect of diminishing their immediacy. It is what we do when we replace gut reaction with more objective understanding. It seems plausible.

I could not help myself from applying the idea to other contexts. My own humanities background has always made me interested in what makes places and peoples tick. As a geographer, I have always been fascinated by local behavioural distinctiveness, so I rather instinctively look at the social ‘health’ of whole nations from a similar perspective.

This train of thought was set rolling again recently by a finding that has found that serious drunkenness is significantly more prevalent in the U.K. than almost any other developed country. While there will no doubt be a range of views on the seriousness of this, I take the view that the need of a society to escape from itself may considered a sociopathology and an indicator of less than good societal health. The fact that many in the U.K. may not take this as seriously as I do is perhaps more of a symptom than a cure: no matter what one’s attitudes, the indisputable truth is that alcohol abuse causes multiple negative health outcomes, and that is without considering its wider social and economic costs, or the psychological forces that drive it. I find it easy to conclude that the perceived need of many people in this country to escape from reality quite possibly says something important about the quality of the lives they feel the need to escape from. Such things are not always apparent unless one has a reliable comparator, such as conditions in other countries. We are not talking about a little convivial tipsiness here – though the line between the two is less clear than I suspect many think…

My train of thought took me yet  further, to the ongoing criticisms of the British government for its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. While I have no wish to excuse possibly the worst bunch of national ‘leaders’ this country has had in generations, I do not think it is reasonable to pile all of the blame at their door. In a country of 68 million people, a handful of politicians can only do so much. Even in my own relatively kindly small community, I have repeatedly witnessed pandemic-related behaviours that I find hard to attribute to anything other than diminished responsibility on the part of their perpetrators.

What’s more, we are daily regaled with reports of the ‘damage’ that the current situation is doing to everything from the nation’s economy to wealth disparities to young people’s mental health. All the time, the tendency is to attribute this to governmental incompetence; what I see is buck-passing on an epic scale: just another sign of a society that was not in good general health even before the pandemic struck.

It struck me that the pandemic is in effect one huge marshmallow test. Whole societies are being asked to put their lives on hold in the biggest test of deferred gratification ever conducted – and just as with the children in the original survey, outcomes differ. It may not be stretching the point too far to suggest that those societies that have coped with the strictures comparatively well are in better collective health than those that have not; the implications for the UK (and perhaps the USA) are obvious.

If there is any substance to this, then we need to look for reasons why it may be so. I do not think they are hard to find: the report on drunkenness perhaps gives the game away. People in the UK subconsciously see routine, everyday life as something they need to escape from; this may speak volumes about those lives, the balance of hardships and rewards within them, the opportunities people feel they have – even the physical environments which they inhabit – all things repeatedly identified as social ills present in the U.K. It may say a great deal about the resultant social attitudes of those people with respect to their own ‘agency’, their sense of personal responsibility, and towards those who govern or otherwise constrain them.

The current problem is not hard to understand: a force of nature that is both highly infectious and quite widely lethal. While one should not disregard the functional conflicts that for instance force people into unsafe workplaces, there have still been very many acts that were arguably nothing more than wanton irresponsibility seen in the light of the Covid facts. They range from large, illicit gatherings to individual acts of low empathy that reflect a simple lack of self-control.

The opinion-pieces in the press bemoaning the loss of the social whirl; the reaction to the intended Christmas relaxation, and its subsequent cancelling – all reflect a reluctance to accept that we cannot do what we want – not what we need. Social contact is certainly important (for some) – but not if you are dead. And the key to surviving the pandemic lies above all in an inner resourcefulness and grit that seems never to have developed in many.

The whole point of learning to defer gratification is the ability to accept that life does not revolve around one’s own immediate urges; that one cannot always have what one wants just when one wants it, even for one’s own good. It means drawing on one’s inner resources to cope with this. This might have been considered an unremarkable point of adult maturity – but it seems that many people struggle with it. It is also a lynchpin for stable societies.

Underpinning deferred gratification is an inability to distance oneself from wider circumstances, particularly when they are adverse. And behind that, in turn, is a need to develop the mental resilience that comes from a fully mature mindset. Similar expressions of this can be found in Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s work on the nature of Flow: the finding that people flourish in conditions where they are challenged sufficiently but not excessively. Having an overly easy life takes you nowhere worthwhile, and leaves you lacking in resourcefulness when times get hard. The chart below explains this:

Part of Flow is recognising the necessity to defer gratification if significant fulfilment is ever to be achieved. This is why athletes and musicians amongst others discipline themselves to train so long and hard. It involves learning to accept short-term setbacks – and even the fact that “success” may never be guaranteed at all. It is also what traditional approaches to education were based on – the need to study long and hard in order to reach a higher state of rational understanding. Its pinnacle may perhaps be seen in the philosophy of the Stoics, which accepted that life can be tragic, and our best salvation lies in learning to accept that fact rather than rage against it. In effect, permanently deferred gratification.

This seems to be an insight that has escaped modern society at large – it is too busy throwing the toys of its indulged lifestyle out of its pram. How else can one understand people complaining about their lost social lives while so many are dying? The inner resourcefulness that might provide a coping mechanism is just not there; though easy, blaming it on others is not the answer.

 It is impossible to separate the various effects of the pandemic’s impact – but it seems to me that a lot of the problems being reported may well be not so much due to unavoidable hardship, but of people not being able to cope with the suspension of things they want rather than need to do. (I suspect those suffering real hardship are largely not shouting at all).

This explains everything from the huge numbers of people on beaches last summer, to the relish with which people surged out after previous lockdowns were eased, to the thousands of small indiscretions where people prove unwilling to alter what they want to do in the light of what they ought to do. No matter that the real risk (infection, as opposed to law-breaking) has not gone away.  It may be easy to pass blame to others, but this is nothing more than evading responsibility for that inability to defer gratification. Likewise, focussing on what is or is not allowed as opposed to what is medically prudent, is a displacement activity used to avoid the need to look at harder truths. To be fair, this does now seem to be sinking in – but did we really have to get to this point for it to do so?

Why has this affected some societies harder than others? I suspect the answer lies in many very long-term factors in the social climate of varying countries.

Much has been made of the stark contrast between the experiences of the UK and Japan, in the context that these two island societies are often quite good comparators. I suspect the reason for Japan’s better experience lies in its culture of scrupulous hygiene, its fabled rituals of social respect and its resultant willingness to comply. Its religious background is close to Buddhism, with associated philosophy of transcendence. These things are all quite different in the UK. The reasons for this lie too far back in this nation’s development to discuss in detail here – but the country’s trajectory over the past few decades has finally been shown to be the pernicious and socially-unhealthy one that it really is.

Prime amongst the culprits is the excessive commercialisation of society. The incursion of the profit motive into almost every aspect of British life has had unremarked impacts on the nation psyche. The often-gratuitous selling on which recreational consumption depends – relies on people doing anything but deferring their gratification. Advertising actively encourages people to yield to their every passing urge, and to do it immediately. It promotes a self-focused, first-person perspective on life, which Kross has correlated with increased risks and impacts of mental anguish. It encourages people not to think hard about what they are doing, or the longer-term consequences. Over time, this – coupled with the infantilising effect that it has on adult mentalities – has greatly damaged the nation’s ability to act defer its collective gratification. Anything that requires it appears a catastrophe in its own right.  The hysteria and outrage that accompany situations where demands are not met is evidence of the depth of the harm being done. The fact that some have started to reflect on their past behaviours is welcome – but is itself evidence that they were perhaps functioning on (commercially-driven) autopilot in the past. Whether new resolve will endure remains to be seen.

It may be argued that the impacts of rampant commerce are not restricted just to a few countries; this is true – but its perniciousness is not the same everywhere, as it interacts with wider social norms and attitudes. Even today, for example, many German shops close on Saturday afternoons, since shopping is simply not seen as the leisure activity that it is in the UK and the USA. It is a functional necessity, but it does not occupy a central place in people’s attention.

I suspect that another factor is the degree of cultural introversion or extroversion in different countries. Those that appear to value extroversion, such as the USA and increasingly the UK, may be finding the loss of interaction harder to cope with than those with more introverted cultures and a higher degree of self-reliance. These are, however, skills and outlooks that can be cultivated, given determination.

My own field of education might have been expected to be the main antidote to this problem. But it too has been re-cast in quasi-commercial terms in recent decades. This has not only affected the obvious marketisation of institutions, but also the culture within them. The emphasis on (marketised) results has narrowed what may be reasonably taught; the need for “consumer” satisfaction has reduced the risks taken by teachers, for example where work needs to be hard, and gratification deferred – in favour of making sessions “fun” – for which read instantly-accessible, undemanding trivia. The more challenging philosophical subjects have been marginalised in favour of those which deliver practical skills and employability – hardly unimportant, but we have created a workforce-society whose emphasis is on the purely functional, and which lacks the mental-philosophical insight or resolve to rise to demanding circumstances.

And above all, it lacks the ability to differentiate between that which might reasonably be blamed on an incompetent government and that which is the failure of individual personal responsibility. Known epidemiological fact suggests to me that it is the latter which has actually been the main reason for the severe impact of Covid in this country: we simply have created a society that lacks the resolve and ability to respond in the required way. We have emphasised personal indulgence at the expense of social cohesion and created a national infrastructure that was configured to operate along quasi-commercial principles and that cannot respond to the current circumstances. Anything that did not, was allowed to wither.

As with individual health, the wellbeing of societies is not a matter of personal opinion: there are behaviours that are more or less healthy, which promote greater or lesser long-term flourishing. The British have a primitive self-understanding in this respect – and attempting to normalise the symptoms, for example by having a light attitude for mass drunkenness, is an expression of the problem, not the solution.

The simple fact is, the British people have collectively proved unable to resist the ‘marshmallow’ even when the risk is widespread death. Some other nations did not. As in the original test, the longer-term consequences are widely significant.

Food

French for Veggies

Mushroom and chestnut bourgignon

I have only ever met one French vegetarian; he worked at a crêperie in Aurillac where we ate in 2016. He assured us that life is getting easier for non-meat-eaters in France, albeit from a low base. Certainly, my experiences of eating in France with a veggie ‘other half’ is that it can still be very restrictive.

It’s still not entirely unknown for waiters to be incredulous, and while vegetarian options do seem to figure increasingly on menus, close inspection suggests reluctance rather than comprehension, with limited choice and a degree of misunderstanding. More than once, for instance, my wife has ordered meat-free options only for them to appear with lardons or similar – which apparently do not count as ‘meat’ in the French gastronomic mind….

Equally, the matter can be restrictive when it comes to home cooking. Stewing up a great, rich casserole in a Le Creuset is one of my favourite forms of cooking – something of which there are a good many excellent French versions – and all the more so at this time of year when hearty food and a pleasurable preparation process are good buttresses against inclemency. But it is not so easy to produce such a dish for one – the quantity issue rears its ugly head – and there is always the matter of what to produce for my fellow-diner.

So I was delighted to find a recipe a year or two ago for a mushroom bourgignon, which I have now made a number of times and have tweaked to improve it further. I found that using tiny whole carrots is preferable to sliced larger ones, while early on it struck me that adding chestnuts would be a good move, and so it has proved. This year’s innovation has been to serve it with a creamy potato gratin, which complements the tangy red-wine flavour of the main dish excellently.

My wife has been vegetarian for decades, and she has forgotten what meat is really like – as evidenced when she intermittently observes that some non-meat item “tastes just like chicken/bacon/fish”; for me, a more pressing issue is that meaty dishes most often do not survive the transition to vegetarian equivalent. The whole point of a big, gloopy casserole is that the meat is the star and main determinant of the texture, flavour and consistency of the whole. In any case, this is not a helpful approach to vegetarianism – which is why we eat so much Italian food…

But this bourgignon is an exception; using whole shallots, small mushrooms and chestnuts gives it a decent texture, while the use of a red wine with them, a good rich flavour where the absence of meat can almost be overlooked.

I wonder if it will catch on in France.

As always I offer the following not a definitive recipe, but as a guide for experimentation and further research…

Ingredients:

4-5 small shallots per person

Handful of button chestnut mushrooms per person

Handful of (vacuum-packed?) whole sweet chestnuts per person

4-6 small whole carrots per person

200mm fruity red wine

1 tbsp of plain flour

2-3 tbsp passata or less of tomato puree

150ml vegetable stock

1 clove garlic

Large pinch dried thyme

Salt and pepper

Olive oil

25g Butter

Method

It is probably best to prepare the gratin before starting the casserole. (see below)

Prepare the shallots, carrots and mushrooms by peeling/wiping as appropriate.

In a deep heavy casserole dish, melt the butter and a little of the oil. Sauté the carrots for five or more minutes until they start to soften a little.

Add the shallots and continue to sauté.

Add the flour and tomato puree and stir until the vegetables are coated. Add the red wine and simmer until reduced by about half.

Add the garlic, vegetable stock and thyme; season to taste and leave on a low simmer for around 20-30 minutes until the casserole thickens to taste.

While this is cooking, sauté the mushrooms in a separate pan, and add to the casserole at the same time as the chestnuts, around five minutes before the end.

Potato gratin

Heat oven to 180C.

Slice the potatoes very thinly (3mm max) One large potato per person usually suffices; waxy tend to be better for this.

Wipe the inside of a deep oven proof dish with garlic.

Layer the potatoes in the oven-proof dish; dot butter and sprinkle small amounts of salt and pepper.

When the top is reached, dot with a little more butter, and pour in a 50-50 mix of cream and milk to just reach the top layer.

Place in oven, on a baking tray or similar, as it is likely there will be overspill.

Cook for 45 minutes – 1 hour until the potatoes yield to the knife test.

Serve with fresh bread and the rest of the red wine.

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.