Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

David and Goliath

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There is a battle brewing. The enemy is anything but unseen: it dominates life in this, and to varying extents most, countries. The early skirmishes have already been seen: the calls from the harder Right for lock-down to be ended in the interests of getting the Economy back working; in the headlines in the less responsible press announcing that from next week Everything Will Be Alright again.

Even The Guardian’s economics correspondent Larry Goddard wrote a piece a few days ago arguing that people balance their economic interests with life-or-death situations every time they get in a car to go shopping or to work.

It’s a persuasive argument, and not without some sense of course – but it seems that even Goddard is in hoc to the Great God Economics. So are all those people in other fields exhorting an early end to lock-down. They can’t get sufficiently far outside the box to envisage what might now be necessary. Could it be that many of them are precisely those who have driven our societies in the direction they have gone in the past few decades, those who real priority has been (and still is) to make as much money as possible from the rest of us, even if it means working us to the bone? It’s not as though we’ve not seen their like throughout history. As with everything else it touches, the pandemic reveals their true selves, and the priorities that drive them. 

On the other side, there is a growing body of comment pointing out the benefits that the slowdown has brought; that were it not for the health fears and the tragic news, day to day life would in many ways be much improved. The early apprehension that lock-down would be unbearable has been at least tempered by the discovery that it is possible not to run one’s life against the clock and still enjoy it. In fact, quite possibly to enjoy it more.

I spent three decades in a hectic career; I still cannot quite believe that thirty years went by almost without my noticing. What I do remember, though, is a constant nagging voice telling me that the pace at which I was living was not right. Life was tearing by in a blur, many experiences barely touched upon as I sped on my way to the next deadline. Had it not been for the mental health difficulties that precipitated it (and which, after all, were all the proof needed that the pace was not good for me) the slowed-down period of my life since 2016 has had much to recommend it. At last I feel I am living my life, rather than watching from the side-lines. And even though that life has had to be pared back in some ways, there has still been a net gain.

The battle to come will be that between the huge interests that want to get us back to ‘life as it was before’ as soon as possible, and those who want lessons to be learned, and things to move in another direction. A recurring theme is the fact that the odds are stacked against the latter. Modern society is so controlled by commercial interests and their political puppets that the hope of radical change seems to be slim.

This too is a depressingly persuasive argument. But it overlooks one thing: for those systems to function as they did, it requires the complicity of the rest of us. It requires people unquestioningly to buy (literally and metaphorically) all the unnecessary stuff that the commercial world needs to flog to survive – and which even now, elements of it are still trying to flog us. It needs people to accept ever harder working lives in order to maintain the income needed to support this. It needs people to buy into the myth that their lives will be better the more they buy or consume,  the further and more often they travel, and so on. And it relies on people being willing to sell their souls to accept that More Money is the answer to all their problems.

It is easy to criticise this as being a middle-class morality – and to some extent it is, at least if you consider class to be defined these days by income. Although this household’s past four years required a severe pruning of our consumption, we still had enough money coming in, plus some savings, that we were never at risk of starving, or losing our home. Plenty are.

But in another way, the fact that there are many in society who do not have such a buffer is the fault of the rest of us too. It is precisely the middle classes whose endless, mindless consumption fuelled the corporate policies that treated the less-fortunate increasingly badly. It is precisely the earning classes who prioritised bonuses and tax cuts over investment in the essential services and social safety-net that we now all need; who tolerated increasingly insecure work for the low-paid so long as it meant they could carry on buying more for less. In other words, the plight of the less fortunate in our society, is to some extent in the hands of the middle classes too.

And it is also the middle classes who were in the vanguard of the wave of angst that swept the country at the news that their chock-full consumer lives (and own long working hours in their dream careers) were going to be curtailed for the foreseeable future. It is they, after all, who are most afflicted with Affluenza, and who felt they had most to lose when those hell-for-leather lives ground to a halt. Anyone would think they never moaned about the impossible conflicts they faced in managing their daily routines…

The battle to come is definitely a matter of David and Goliath. But we all know the moral of that story. Life As It Was Before will only resume if sufficient people cave in and let it. There are of course many who desperately need to secure their incomes in the short term – but this is a battle with a longer time scale. It is not about not earning a reasonable income – it is about what we then do with it. And about what we more generally consider to be ‘reasonable’  (and unreasonable) in the first place.

There are signs that resistance is building: not only in the predictable (but sensible) calls from the Unions that workplaces need to be safe before people return to work – but also from those who  support an extended closure of schools even at the (supposed) cost to their children of the lost hot-housing that formal education now is. It is also there in the numbers of people who have rediscovered that places are nicer (and cleaner) when not choked with cars; in the people who have actually appreciated more time spent with family or who have re-connected with their communities; in those who have discovered new pastimes and skills. And in the general sense of a life that is being lived at a more sustainable and in many ways more pleasurable pace.

The battle to come will only be lost if all those things are forgotten in the coming months and years. All that is needed is for sufficient numbers of people to change – and then sustain – their ways of life, so that they are no longer duped by the call to resume a life that returns us to all those unmissed routines.

It is not easy to change one’s way of life. Managing with less stuff takes determination; if you’re hooked on it, finding other things to do than recreational shopping requires determination too. As does not getting in your car and travelling for every need. It is especially difficult since so much of our infrastructure is now geared to people doing exactly those things. But this emergency has shown that another way is still possible, when we put our minds to it. The question is, how many will actively, determinedly do so?

In the longer term, education, economics and commerce are all human constructs. The Virus, to say nothing of the wider ecological crisis are not – except inasmuch as we caused them. Pretty much any aspect of human life can be reconfigured, as it has been in the past weeks (political claims that “it can’t be done” have been shown for what they are). Except for whether you are alive or dead: in that respect, there is no contest.

The battle to come is going to be one of determination – between the vested interests who would get us back to a “normality” of whose detrimental effects we have been graphically reminded – and those who now see that something else is both possible and desirable. In the decisions we make as and when the immediate crisis winds down – the things we do, and perhaps more significantly the things we refuse to do – people-power must be able to send a loud message to those in power, about the changes that have to be made.

Because try as they might, neither corporations nor politicians can implement their programmes without the complicity of everyone else.

Opinion & Thought

Half-baked

“If you want to see what education does to a country, just look at one that has none”.

It was perhaps the most convincing argument I ever encountered for doing the job that has occupied the bulk of my working life.

It also provided the perfect justification why someone like me, not a particularly outgoing person and with no children of his own, might go into that line of work. While I was perfectly prepared to support individuals when they needed my help, I never really subscribed to the view of my role as a somewhere between a pal and a life-coach, that has become the mainstream view in recent years. The job of the teacher is to be more impartial than that – a mentor, a critical friend, not a yes-person.

That is not to say that the individual is unimportant: a happy society has to be produced, as far as is possible, from happy individuals – but there is another descriptor that one might use too: Balanced. We all need a well-balanced society, not one that is simply pursuing individual self-realisation at all costs; all the more so when it is equated solely with career and income. This, I am less convinced we are achieving.

A balanced society is perhaps Wise: one that appreciates the perpetual, inescapable and uncomfortable compromise between our own interests and those of others around us. It appreciates, too, the subtle point that even self-interest is not simply a matter of who acquires the sharpest elbows and the largest bank account. It hopefully also sees that many of the things that make life worth living are not a product of ruthless ambition, nor the status that may result.

Therefore my own motives for teaching were more concerned with the role of education in creating a civilised society for all – including those without their own children – and for the transmission of the cultural and intellectual capital that is the very necessary inheritance of all. Looking after the individuals was just a (very important) part of the bigger picture.

I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the view (of not only, but seemingly including many teachers), that the purpose of education was to pass exams, thereby progressing to the next stage of this supposedly pre-ordained, homogenous process until wealth and influence eventually landed in your lap. It is probably no coincidence that such views were peddled most strongly by those within the profession who had themselves followed that trajectory…

My discomfort reached a peak when I was being actively being prevented from teaching in a way and using materials that I knew enhanced understanding, on the grounds that they would not specifically appear in the exam. To me, this was the pinnacle of the narrow-mindedness that I always believed education was meant to counter: a view so limited as to believe that we should only teach things, and in ways, that would supposedly enhance exam performance – at the expense of precisely the breadth of understanding and insight that exams are intended to sample. If this is so, then it is indeed true that the whole thing has been reduced to a pointless exercise in hoop-jumping.

I could not escape my unease that this outlook, which reduced the essential, life-enhancing experience of wonder at, and learning about the world to little more than box-ticking. I could not ignore the sense that is also self-defeating, because when the acquisition of something as indefinable as Wisdom is reduced to such, it does indeed become all but meaningless. Wisdom, by definition is not something that can be either acquired or exercised according to a pre-written formula – as many of the exponents of the hoop-jumping approach unknowingly demonstrated all too well.


 

These conflicts have been much in my mind again in recent times. First Brexit, and now Covid-19 have severely tested our resilience as a society, and revealed the strengths and weaknesses of different systems, approaches and mindsets around the world.

As everywhere, my own local community has been tested by this unexpected adversity. In the past weeks, people have been taking conspicuous care with social distancing, while a number of local support groups have sprung up, as one would hope. And yet it seems that a few weeks of this are as much as some people can support. There are growing numbers of people appearing in the streets; while our weekly market has done well from people shopping more locally, I find myself incredulous at the speed with which self-discipline seems to be breaking down.

It seems that now the initial shock of the situation has passed, people are increasingly cutting corners; that faced with the choice between immediate convenience and potentially fatal infection, more than I am comfortable with appear to choose the former. Perhaps they think they are invincible; I wonder how many know that we have had the virus here in this community of five thousand…

There are some here (as presumably in all societies) who seem to have a casual attitude to Risk, or who simply can’t be bothered to sustain previous efforts. This might not matter so much if the consequences of their decisions only affected themselves – but the cruel tragedy of this pandemic, is that careless behaviour is at least as likely to harm others as themselves.

I know that some of the local traders have noticed – and have not missed the irony, either, that many who are currently patronising them have never been seen before – and will probably never be seen again once ‘normal’ life resumes. Such is the superficial transience of some people’s behaviour – and, it seems, their ability to learn lasting lessons. It often seems to be the same people who show little awareness of others around them in the street, and who seem to think that social distancing means that everyone else needs to give way…


 

There as an inherent contradiction within the idea of education: by cultivating people’s resourcefulness and potential, one makes it more possible for those individuals to stand on their own feet; to make decisions about their own lives and interests that are freed from the overwhelmingly-communal concerns that still govern less educated societies, ones where community really is an insurance against adversity.

Strengthening people’s minds really does give them more autonomy – but there is no guarantee that the result will be used in an enlightened way. The process that we in Britain currently call ‘education’ taps into very strong instincts for self-advancement, even greed: its singular emphasis on personal fulfillment has downplayed the interconnectedness of us all, which the current situation has temporarily re-emphasised. It has led people to become self-focused to the extent that they fail even to consider the impact of their behaviour on others – even it seems when that behaviour can potentially cause death. Not all restraint has gone – but a virus does not negotiate; it does not make allowances for human weakness or stupidity. In fact, it exploits them.

The problem with education is this: done well, it does indeed lead to a more effective, more ‘free’ society – and one in which people might be expected to acquire more than a passing attachment to the currently-required behavioural changes that exist for everyone’s benefit. Where people are wise enough to have a sensible perspective about the situation; where they actively take considered and responsible decisions. Where lessons really are learned.

But done badly, all it does is exaggerate people’s sense of autonomy – empowerment without the necessary wisdom to appreciate the subtle limitations on that autonomy. It leads to a determination to have one’s own way no matter what the consequences; eventually it becomes so habitual that people cannot do otherwise. First Brexit and now the pandemic seem to be showing that for enough of the population to cause a problem, it is indeed such attitudes that now hold sway. No doubt the same people will be the first with the hysterics should there be another spike in infections.

This is what education as hoop-jumping achieves: giving people an exaggerated sense of their own importance, even invincibility – and a diminished sense of the many ways in which that is nothing more than an illusion. They may lose dependency – but they replace it with half-truths. Half-baked education is only concerned with what superficially seems to be the ‘right’ answer – not the imponderable dilemmas and uncertainties that a truly-wise perspective can see. And it fails to equip people to know how to change their minds.

This is where my misgivings came from – for as has been said before, a little education is a dangerous thing.

Opinion & Thought

About time

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This is Loch Laidon on Rannoch Moor in Scotland. Perhaps half a dozen times in my life, I have gone there and just stood. It is perhaps the most timeless place I know. The nearest road is several miles away, the nearest settlement perhaps thirty. Even though many years sometimes pass between visits, on each occasion that I visit, for all intents and purposes, it is exactly the same. It is there now – being more or less exactly the same as it always is. Maybe a few trees have fallen, but that is about it – nothing very perceptible, in a landscape whose bones are getting on for 500 million years old.

On the other side of the Moor, near Loch Ba, there is a viewpoint by the A82 road, where the view is so stupendous that people voluntarily interrupt their journeys quite literally just to stand and stare. If you can access Google Earth, you too can go there now, stand and scroll through 360 degrees: the effect will be at least a little the same.

There has been much gnashing of teeth in the British media recently about the effect on our perception of time of the lockdown, entering its fifth or sixth week. I don’t know which: I’ve stopped counting. Or rather, I never started.

A piece in The Guardian yesterday commented on the way in which time itself distorts under such circumstances, and how it is incredibly difficult not to go mad without a tight drumbeat by which to live one’s life.

I disagree. If you want to experience the true nature of time, go to somewhere like Loch Laidon. Ideally, do it on one of its less inhospitable days, when the sun is shining, and the water clear and blue in the way you forget water really can be, if you live in, say, East London. Sit on the small beach by the loch and feel the sun on your skin, breathe in clean air, wine-like in a way it never normally is in, say, North London. Watch the wind rustling the heather and bog grasses – and realise that it has been doing this – exactly like this – every day for at least the last ten thousand years. On one occasion when I was there, a stag appeared: jumped out of the trees a little way up the hillside; stood and stared at me for a few moments, then trotted off down the path, back into the trees – and out of (my) time, forever.

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Even if you are there in a storm, as you shelter, appreciate the place’s shift to a brooding melancholy as something happens that has come – and passed – countless times before down the millennia.

The problems that people have with Time are not of Time’s making. They are to do with the ways we are conditioned to use – and think about – it. I suspect this is a relatively recent, and largely western phenomenon. Contrary to popular thinking, indigenous peoples across the world tend to spend plenty of time just sitting around or doing things that are low in the list of survival essentials. The same appears to have been true of our own ancestors. Buddhists are known to approach such things in a very different way.

We, on the other hand, have allowed ourselves to become defined by constant action – and in particular, constant consumption – for which we must also constantly work. It is all about consuming life itself, where quantity appears to governing rule, but which may not be fundamentally in our own interests. We are encouraged to consume without thinking, moving ever onward, before we have even digested what we encountered last…

So the problem with people who are struggling is not Time: it is themselves. I don’t say this to be unkind – but to point out that all human routine is simply conditioning, and it can be changed. Quite often it is conditioning that we did not even choose to receive; much derives simply from growing up in certain societies and being subject to their influences. When it comes to the pace of life, each new generation picks up where the last one left off. Change may not be easy – but it can be done.

Routine and habit of course give shape to daily life, but when we lose the ability to regulate the drum according to our own needs, those things perhaps become less beneficial. Much of the beat originates from forces that have a vested interest in our dancing to their tune; it is not in their interests for us to be able to define the purposes of our own lives. The most obvious examples of this are economic, since we have built an economic system that requires constant consumption in order to keep it functioning – and more importantly for those who control these things, the flow of income into their offshore accounts. Their empowerment is our loss – and it is more than just financial.

The same forces shape the world of work: while productivity pays our monthly way, I have my doubts that the pace and duration of modern work is strictly necessary. Much of it is directed towards objectives that themselves are largely confected, the benefits of which I suspect tends to accrue to others rather than ourselves. It is really necessary that so many things be done by yesterday? Go and stand on the beach at Loch Laidon and ask yourself the same question.

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It’s not that there is no benefit in speed: it can be exhilarating. But when speed comes to rule us, its effect changes. Its adrenaline becomes addictive: the problem some people are having with slowing down is simply that they are not used ever to having to do so. They have become so used to living life as though it is supermarket sweep that they simply don’t know how not to do it like that. If you are used to living in a constant state of external hyper-stimulation then like stopping any other dependency, it will be difficult.

If you blast through life in the fast lane, simply trying to sweep as much as possible into your trolley as you go, you tend not to leave time to reflect on whether what you are doing is either helpful or necessary. The human brain does have a physical limit to how quickly it can process information; the more demands we place on it, the less likely we are to be able to deal with anything in more than a cursory way. In that situation the immediacy of Quantity trumps the subtlety of Quality.

But right now, quantity is suddenly in short supply – and people are being forced to sit and contemplate the quality of their lives. I suspect it was apprehension about this that caused the consternation of some weeks ago. But along with those who are still struggling, there is now much evidence that people are finding new things to do with their time, as I suspected they would, and even quite enjoying it. They  are perhaps beginning to see more clearly what many have sensed for some time – life as it has recently been is neither good for us, nor even as much fun as it was supposed to be.

I’m not the only one talking about a rediscovery of core values, of community and self-help, and hoping that at least some of the current calm will continue once the health crisis passes. The Slow Movement has been saying as much for years, of course, and now Danny Dorling has joined in, too.

I suspect that individual struggles are largely in proportion to the levels of conditioning. People are not fundamentally so different – but the ways in which we are conditioned (or condition ourselves) perhaps are. Those who are most used to having their lives filled externally probably will encounter most difficulty when that changes. Perhaps it’s thirty years of having been ruled by hourly lesson-bells that cause me to relish, rather than fear, the sense of time stretching endlessly ahead, to be used just as current circumstances suggest, moment by moment; hours when I rule my time, rather than it ruling me.

If there is a knack for doing this, I think it comes down to expectations. If you perceive time – and hence your own life – as a constantly-moving conveyor, a bit like the last stage of The Generation Game, with an endless supply of goodies passing in front of you, your only job being to grab them – then the point when the conveyor stops will be difficult.

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It’s not a lot better to consider it as a jigsaw puzzle – because then the value of each piece is only its relation to a picture that you may only see fleetingly at its very end.

But time is a slippery concept. For all that Physics says it moves forward, there is plenty in the way we experience it that can make it seem to slow down or even stop. Change may be endemic – but it does not always happen at breakneck speed. In fact, for large tracts of time, left to its own devices, not much happens at all. It is breakneck that is the lie. That, I think, is the lesson of Loch Laidon.

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There are things you can do to assist this: practising Mindfulness is one, where you learn to focus on just your own breath; sitting watching the play of light and shade on the wall of a sunny room is another. Contemplating a still-life painting is another: things that are not dependent on the passage of time, of constantly living in the future at the expense of appreciating the present. Ironically, the more you do this, the more the burden of time seeming to drag, recedes.

The health benefits of natural environments are widely-known; I suspect these too stem from the sense of un-changingness that they exude. Time spent experiencing the wind, the movement of the trees and the plays of light and shade – things that have been going on for millions of years – can give us an entirely different perspective on time – one where the future is characterised not by the next deadline or appointment – but by their absence. Of sameness – which is perfectly alright if you accept it – and of apparent randomness, of things that just come, pass, and go, a bit like the stag. Of its being entirely acceptable to exist in each moment, as it happens, just for its own sake. This too can become a form of conditioning – one that actually enhances the quality of our lives, where we experience things at a pace more in keeping with our own comfort and understanding and ability to savour.

I think another trick concerns how you define the ‘purpose’ of something. The pleasure of daubing paint on canvas for its own sake can be far greater than the reputation or wealth that most of us will (n)ever get from doing it. Playing a musical instrument is no ‘use’ to most of us, except in the pleasure it gives to do so. The trick is to do it for its own sake, rather than simply as a step on the way to something else that somehow never arrives. I think it’s no surprise that many people seem to have resorted to cookery and are finding again pleasure in a thing that is often debased as a chore to be got out of the way, rather than done for its own sake.

The whole point of standing by Loch Laidon was just to stand there. It all depends on what you define as the journey, and what the destination.

Much of what we rail about in life, what stresses us, concerns our unrealistic expectations of time. When we slow down, we can start to focus on detail rather than a blur, and we can perhaps rediscover that life does not need to be lived at break-neck speed in order to be fulfilling. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case. It is possible to travel across Rannoch Moor at sixty miles an hour on a train – at which point one admires the distant views but sees no more than a blur of the never-changing minutiae of that place. It’s only when you get off the train, that you can really drink it in.

A poor life this if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Il Dolce far Niente

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A deep silence is descending. In our small town, during the day almost nothing moves. It’s the same kind of silence that you normally only find in villages in La France Profonde, or parts of high-summer Italy; the early warmth and sunshine only reinforces the impression. Or perhaps it reminds me of my West-Country childhood, where the summers seemed to go on forever…

A trunk road passes near the town; often there is a ceaseless, low-level roar of lorries heading for the East Coast ports, and cars heading to workplaces, or the nearby retail centres. That has gone. So have the aircraft in this most crowded of airspace. Even in the town centre, except for the occasional vehicle, and the singing of the birds, the silence is near-total. The town is never exactly busy, though over the years the influx of commuters has upped the tempo. It has a rush-hour; not any more. In twenty years here, never before have I heard my footsteps echoing in the streets. Human voices, when heard, have an unusual clarity…

Somehow, there is a depth to this quietness that isn’t normally there. The tempo of life is slowing. Apparently, seismologists say the country has stopped vibrating.

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On our occasional forays, one gains snatches of voices out of sight in back gardens, or glimpses of people lolling in rooms. Now and again, a conversation is had (from a safe distance, of course), in an unhurried way that rarely happens when people have busy-ness to get back to. A sound-track for this would shatter the silence of course, but it seems like the right time for Prelude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune, or The Lark Ascending. Or perhaps La Mer.

It is of course not like this everywhere; it would be monstrous not to acknowledge the duress of those working to keep the rest of us serviced, let alone in the hellish places that some hospitals must be.

But for many, it is a matter of sitting and waiting. And from this, we can learn much. The country that originated il dolce far niente can be frantic too; life has to go on, everywhere. Here too, there is plenty of activity; the difference is the pace at which it needs to be done. But we can learn something valuable about a benign pace of life. We can remember that plenty of stuff can just Wait.

Even the names of the days are blurring; when it’s no longer a matter of work routines, do even they really matter? Did our ancestors get depressed about Mondays?

The meaning of that phrase does not refer to laziness, so much as the ability to stop and do nothing when circumstances permit. To linger over lunch or a chat, or just to sit and watch the play of sun and shadows on the wall. It is perhaps related to doing things well, rather than just quickly. It’s akin to mindfulness: an ability to be in, and to savour the present moment, to put one’s schedule on hold and just be.

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No doubt there are many who are finding confinement extremely difficult – even holidays these days seem to be a mad rush for the coast or places to keep the kids entertained. In this pressure-cooker of a country everything, it seems, need to be done at break-neck speed, as though people are scared of simply slowing down.

Is it too much to hope that they too might eventually break through this, and also learn what our particular circumstances here admittedly make easy – that quietness is restful and restorative, that boredom comes from within, and that forever revving the pace of life is not the answer? That, insofar as there is one, seems to be in the quality of lived experience, not the quantity.

Even in cities, the pace does seem to have slowed; much of what we admire about the world’s most liveable conurbations relates to their pace of life – not only the buzz of things to do, but also the ability to step off that conveyor and just chill. That’s perhaps what makes continental cities so charming; maybe now is the time to see that it is possible here, too?

What does seem to be hurrying is Nature: the speed at which the air and water have cleared has been quite breath-taking. Maybe there is a desperately overdue lesson in there too. Even pandas are breeding, now we have learned just to leave them alone…

It might seem self-indulgent to talk about the benefits of the current situation, when there is so much tragedy unfolding. But even a cloud this dark is not without its silver lining. Perhaps we should be reading James Lovelock or E.M Forster – and pondering the world we have made? Deciding what positive things can come from this?

Surely the best way of commemorating the tragedy of lost and shattered lives is to learn how to live that which remains for the rest of us, less cheaply?

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Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Reckoning

In global terms, I am not widely travelled. But in my frequent journeys around Europe, I have learned one ‘truth’ that I believe can be applied everywhere: people and places are not all the same. At one level, that’s a truism of geography, but it also applies to the social and economic landscape that people overlay on the places they inhabit.

It’s been a nice conceit for Europeans to think that the increasingly close relationships between our nation-states have made us “all just European now”. But it’s not true: the differences remain as strong as the newer realisation that we have more in common than we thought.

It’s not only a national issue either; the tendency to think in terms of national blocs frequently masks the differences that exist within nations. Things can be very different over small distances, even between more and less advantaged districts of a single town. The same tendency also disguises larger patterns, such as the fact that the USA has more coronavirus cases than Europe. I haven’t done the maths, but physical size and population of the USA make a comparison with Europe as a whole more valid than with much smaller political units, before we Europeans go crowing too loudly.

But now more than ever, none of the foregoing detracts from the basic fact that things aren’t the same everywhere. My experience can hardly be claimed to be scientific, but the repeated impression of numerous countries has been that each has its own ‘way’, that seems to transcend any attempt to smother or standardise it.

I suspect the reason for this is simply that ‘culture’ is both a more and less transmissible phenomenon that we realise. While it is easy enough to identify its outward expressions, I suspect the sheer depth of that ‘programming’ is less appreciated. Because we are exposed to this particular virus literally from birth, we acquire immunity before we’re even aware that is what it is. We then get trapped within it, which makes it more difficult to assimilate others.

What both fascinates and puzzles me is the extent to which culture might be heritable – nature, rather than as one might suppose, nurture. Accepting the many limitations on one’s ability to see the whole picture of something this complex, repeated exposure to Europe’s kaleidoscope has both given me a sense that there are some grounds for national stereotypes – and made me fascinated about precisely why Italians are Italian, Germans German and so on. It almost seems as though nations are unable to escape from their own mindsets, even when it might be in their better interests to do so. It might also explain why the why the UK predictably follows US norms more closely than do other European nations – and language-dependent mindset is only part of it. What genetic cultural commonalities might also play a part?

Yet Nurture is the more obvious influence: from one’s first breath, one is programmed by an all-enveloping message about the world. The things one treats as “normal” are the product of the neural networks that grow by exposure to certain things rather than others, and become established simply by virtue of frequency of encounter. Culture shock is an expression of what happens when one confronts this.

I can find no other way to explain why a universal human aptitude for language ends up with people speaking different ones dependent on where they grow up, or how the universal human need to eat finds so many different expressions.

What we perhaps underestimate is the depth to which these things pervade our entire experience – to the extent that different individuals seem to perceive the world in fundamentally different ways. A recent example was Britons’ wildly varying readings of their nation’s relationship with its neighbours. I think it’s too simplistic to attribute that simply to the influence of the media, the choice of which is itself a product of deeper currents. British attitudes to the wider world seem to be more generally informed by a deeper perspective of isolationism – without, seemingly, any recognition that insularity is itself a form of conditioning, not an absolute of human nature. It’s a function of island-dwelling so deep that many rarely even notice it.

It seems plausible to consider that those who have been exposed to a wider range of cultural experiences (for example by living in a poly-cultural environment or simply having wider geographical horizons) might have developed more varied neural networks as a result, thereby rendering them fundamentally more comfortable with pluralism than those who grew up in more homogenous surroundings. In Switzerland, for example, it is consistently the remote Alpine areas that are the strongholds of right-wing nationalism, whereas the big cities are more liberal. But I’ve met few on the continent who seemed as inherently insular in their attitudes as many British.

Beneath this seems to lie another question: why is it, in this day of instant international communication, when the world’s cultures are interacting more closely than ever before, does our ability to learn even practical things from each other seem so slow? Why is it that the British persist in mocking Germanic ‘efficiency’ even as they might be much better off imitating it? It seems that they just can’t ‘do’ it , even when they most need to.

What is less appreciated is the extent to which culture perpetuates itself – and in objective terms, that can mean replicating and even amplifying national blind spots. The people of a nation are as much a product of its culture as the reverse.

Collectively the British still seem to find it more important to perpetuate their country’s traditions – even as they grow manifestly more and more unsuited for the present day. There is an element of bloody-mindedness when it comes to learning from others – even where it means doing things worse, rather than adopting their methods. We then tell ourselves that it is actually we who are “world class”, even when the evidence contradicts it. This deep runs the national superiority-inferiority complex.

National institutions and policies can reinforce these patterns: the British have been told by their politicians and media for sufficient decades that there is “no such thing as society, only an economy”, that they have come to believe it, and behave accordingly. Even the education system – one of the key methods of cultural transmission – has been recruited to this cause, emphasising economic outcomes at the expense of personal wisdom or resilience, or wider social values. The Health Service (as everything else) has been run as a quasi-business, even though the result has been perpetual shortages and changes of policy. The nation has been led to believe that low taxes are better than a high-quality public realm – and as for the enduring acceptance that traditional social hierarchy is a natural order, it is so “obvious” that even now it is rarely widely questioned. The excessive, futile social competitiveness that it begets is simply treated as the norm.

However, this is not just a British issue: such cultural imprisonment is visible to varying extents across the world. Such convergence as there has been, for example in attitudes towards the human rights or environment, seems to have been the product of top-down intervention by organisations such as the EU or UN.

Which is why I come back to the idea of a heritable element to culture. As technology increasingly turns human culture into a single entity, it ought to be far easier to learn and adopt new strategies and mindsets than it is actually proving.

Anyone who has travelled on Swiss public transport can hardly avoid asking themselves the question, “Why can’t everywhere be like this?” Anyone who has crossed the Belgium-Luxembourg border and noticed the sudden absence of pot-holes and road noise can hardly not reflect on the mindsets and resultant priorities that produced such a striking physical manifestation of the difference between two neighbouring states. The answer is not always money.

More generally, one might wonder why certain states globally exhibit hawkish behaviours while others are more dove-like. Why is it that the nations with serious social problems don’t look at those with fewer and find it within themselves to emulate them? Why can’t Americans look at Europe and realise the obvious, glaring causality between gun ownership and mass killings? Something deeper and more instinctive seems to get in the way.

In the case of the U.K., why is that we instinctively follow the USA’s lead, at the expense of conflict with our nearer neighbours, even while they often don’t suffer from the same extreme social and economic problems that both this country and the USA do? Something deep inside seems to prevent us from doing so – even to the extent of driving a Brexit that few now claim will bring any real benefits.


 

But now we have a Reckoning that will throw all these things into harsh relief. I am not inert to the individual suffering that the coronavirus is causing. It is a human catastrophe. But with my (compassionate) social scientist hat on, I also wonder what it might tell us, and we might learn from it.

In objective terms, this pandemic presents the closest we are likely to come to an utterly dispassionate test of each nation, as of each person within them. The systems, policies, infrastructures – and mindsets – of each are being tested against a ruthless but remarkably constant adversary, which is exposing their respective strengths and weaknesses in a way that ‘mere opinion’ cannot.

And, allowing for the imperfections of information and reporting, it seems evident that while no country has coped ‘well’, some have coped better than others. To what extent is that luck – and to what extent a reflection on the model that each country operates? Much-criticised authoritarian countries seem to have had more success in imposing measures to curb transmission than those in the libertarian West, while within Europe, the “humourless”, “efficient” and “conformist” countries seem to have suffered less than less disciplined ones.

Those that have invested in their health care and technical sectors now have capacity that others which have cut apparent “inefficiencies” to the bone (in the name of cost-savings) do not. Those that retained a stronger sense of civic cohesion seem to be having fewer problems with curfews than those with more individualist streaks. I am bound (but not surprised) to add that the British education system seems to have done little to equip the nation’s citizens as a whole with the perspectives and resilience that might have led to a calmer, more disciplined response. This ‘common-sensical’ nation has revealed itself (again) to be nothing of the kind. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid is coming from some distinctly unexpected quarters…

And the ultimate free market – the USA – sadly seems set to reap a whirlwind that even the UK may avoid, on account of a healthcare sector that was organised for corporate profit rather than universal public health. What more tangible evidence will be needed of the folly of that approach?

In the UK, the flaws of governmental libertarianism have been exposed – but so have the inadequacies of a society where social obligation has been all but obliterated; one in which inequality is so entrenched that there is no shame in depriving one’s fellows of basic needs by bulk-buying (and let’s face it, you need a certain income to be able to do that) – or by considering that one’s “right” to take refuge in one’s second home is more important than the risk of importing the virus into the remoter communities. It is the same mentality that seems to have led the lackadaisical, silver-spoon-raised Johnson somehow to think he was immune from contracting the virus when shaking hands in hospitals. The mindset runs so deep that it defies even common sense. But it can now be shown incontrovertibly to be wrong.

It is the mindset that has nationally prioritised private interests over social need for decades – the same interests that have been found wanting in a national emergency (just-in-time supply chains may cut costs but they do not work at times like this). Others, meanwhile, have been deluging us with emails of opportunism-cum-desperation assuring us of just how public-spirited they actually are, now that our patronage has dried up. Where were those values before the virus when they hoovered up our cash and funnelled it to shareholders? And does anyone really not see the irony in the multi-billionaire, non-tax-paying Branson asking for state bail-outs?

This is not pretty. We should of course balance it with the many acts of compassion and selflessness that are happening across the country, most of which are small and unreported. (Is it too much to describe it as a national reawakening? Even Johnson now accepts that there is such a thing as society…). We should also accept that negative behaviour is probably happening elsewhere, and we are simply not seeing it reported. But the balance-sheet will not inevitably be the same everywhere; I wonder how many Swiss are ignoring their lock-down. (In fact, my informant tells me it is virtually total).

Is it too much to hope that the trial-by-Armageddon of this pandemic should result in some important lessons being learned? Including the need to learn from others where attitudes and practices are better? That isolationism and social polarisation do not work? That (unprofitable) investment in resilience and contingency measures is not economically foolish, let alone socially unnecessary? That in the end, good government is essential? And that mocking nations who are less ill-disciplined, more enlightened than we – and whose citizens have enough social education to know when to curtail their personal idiocies in the name of collective survival – is foolish?

I think that various national responses to the pandemic have tended to reflect national norms more than dispel them. Some of that is circumstantial: more gregarious societies were perhaps going to have quicker contagion than less gregarious ones; on the other hand, they tend to have warmer climates, and so might experience quicker reductions as the summer arrives, that are nothing to do with policy. As I said, it’s complex. But above all that is the ability of each country effectively to run its own affairs. That will ultimately be measured by infection and mortality rates in the face of a common threat.

In the case of the U.K., it will probably be seen to have muddled through, initially over-reliant on bombast, spin and opportunism, followed by a belated but partially successful change of tack; its public services doing a good job despite long having been starved of resources; a nation that is not as sensible (by a long way) as it thinks it is, with cultural transmission systems (such as education) that are found not to have equipped the people as well as they might have, to deal with the biggest collective emergency of their lives.

In other words, pretty much the normal story for this country. But it’s a pity we still find it so hard to learn (in all sorts of ways) from those who arguably did better.

Opinion & Thought

The Sound of Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except they won’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

H.Q.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inspiration in a Bernese showroom.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Cannon fodder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Travel

Under-Ratae-d*

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Town Hall Square

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

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

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

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The covered market

 

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

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De Montfort Square, New Walk, courtesy Creative Commons

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

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Town Hall Square

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

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Queens Road
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Lunch

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

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

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

The topographical geometry of a big little island.

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

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

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

So here is a brief explanation.

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

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

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

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

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

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