Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Proper

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Some time ago, my wife and I decided to upgrade the internal doors in our apartment. The advice about getting floors, doors, walls and windows right being the key to a good interior is, in my experience correct – and this was the last element in need of attention.

We replaced the inherited developer-standard panelled fake-Victorian moulded hardboard delights with some walnut-veneered doors in a plain finish. True to the principles of modernism, the beautiful colour and grain of the wood is all the ‘decoration’ needed. We also bought some brushed-steel bar handles which we felt would complement the richness of the wood very well. In short, while we hardly went for de luxe, we took the trouble to choose properly.

Unfortunately, over the following two years, the handles first sagged from the horizontal and then gradually pulled loose – and eventually one came away in my hand. ‘Proper’ comes in many shapes and forms, and it is surprisingly disconcerting to use a loose and saggy handle on a door. And I mean away: not just the handle from its spindle, but the entire mounting just pulled right out of the woodwork.

Investigation revealed that there were two options for mounting the handles: one consisted of holes for two bolts that would pass right through the mountings and door, linking them on either side and clamping everything solid when the nuts were tightened. The other was four screw-holes for fixing into the timber. In both cases, grub screws tightened the handles onto the spindle, providing secondary securing.

When I removed the cover, it turned out that the second method had been used – only instead of four screws, each door had only two – and in some cases just one screw holding the handle in place. Over two years, a little slack on the spindle had simply allowed the whole thing to pull loose. We suspected (correctly) that the doors were also just board beneath the veneer – but the holes for the handle mechanisms had been made in such a way that many of the screws also had little more than fresh air on which to purchase. Pulling the handle out had left it with nothing whatsoever.

A programme of re-working has just been completed, whereby the handles were secured using the first, mechanically-superior method, and we now have doors whose handles are both satisfyingly firm to the grip, and which won’t risk leaving someone stranded inside the bathroom.

Call me obsessive if you will – but all I am discussing here, really, is doing things properly. I’m very tempted to say that you would never find this problem in Switzerland, but then I am clearly biased. The fact remains, though, that I admire that country largely because of its culture of doing things properly. I have only once ever encountered a Swiss interior that might have been called shoddy – and that was because it clearly had not been updated by the elderly owner in several decades.

‘Properly’ is, however a difficult concept. It implies judgement against some kind of benchmark, and it is something that is also an occupational hazard for a teacher, whose very existence is to some extent predicated on assessing how other people’s efforts compare against an arbitrary set of standards. It can make one very judgmental.

I am not so dogmatic as to insist that my personal standards are in any way absolute, though they are often strongly-felt. To begin with, the guy who originally fitted those handles presumably had a set of criteria of his own. It just wasn’t mine. He was probably more concerned with time being money and getting home a little earlier that evening. The handle surviving for long enough to blunt any dissatisfaction of mine with his work when it eventually failed might also have been in the mix somewhere.

And yet the concept is a powerful one. It is not difficult to find a fair amount of consensus amongst the aficionados of, say, door furniture as to what constitutes Proper. The same can perhaps even be said when it comes to much more difficult matters such as bringing up and educating children. We might use it yet again when looking at the workings of the Law, Medicine, engineering, running a transport system or a government, and civil society more generally. Somewhere in the fog of personal interpretation there seems to lie a core of reasonably widely-shared values.

Slowly, however, these things do also evolve – and can certainly weaken –  over time, and a disconcerting by-product of growing older appears to be the way the goalposts move without one noticing. Some of what I consider Proper seems now to be out of date.

I was struck by this while reading Richard Goodwin’s article in last week’s Observer about the demise of formal dressing  for work. Like Goodwin, I appreciate ‘proper’ mens’ tailoring. I am not a luddite who yearns for some previous era, but for me looking smart is a pleasure in its own right quite apart from any signals I might want to send about my credibility – and, as Michael Bywater once observed, it is also a courtesy to others in the effort one takes both to delight their eye and to present oneself in a way that says you take your interactions with others seriously. Not having worked formally for several years, I still mourn the lack of openings for occasionally sporting a nice suit and tie. Even the traditional shirt and jacket seems to raise an eyebrow these days.

There are however, two inescapable truths in here. One is that my ability to do what I think is proper is constrained to some extent by the expectations of others. My efforts to dress well may in reality pass them by completely – and even worse, may simply send the (I hope incorrect) message that I am just an outdated old geezer. Maintaining what I consider ‘proper’ standards risks making me stand out for the wrong kind of reasons.

The second is that there is no way in which other senses of Proper (which I suppose I had really better call Propriety, although that in my mind has subtly different connotations) are in objective terms any less acceptable than my own. Ultimately the meaning that we attach to the word derives entirely from personal expectations and cultural norms. The same extends to matters like one’s use of written or spoken language, where propriety still in many countries depends on conformity to a predefined norm, whether that be the Queen’s English or the pronouncements of the Académie Franҫaise, to the ridicule of certain regional dialects.

The more one ponders this matter, the more perplexing it becomes. One can extend the notion even further, to matters of social groups. Traditional matters of Class in Britain depended on one’s adherence to a particular set of behaviours by which one could be seen to belong or otherwise – but which were very different from one group to another. Ejection from such groups depended to a large extent on one transgressing notions of ‘proper’ behaviour. (I am aware of the word used pejoratively to criticise someone as stuffy).

Wherever you go, the same thing crops up. Even in my arcane (to English eyes) field of Irish traditional music, much is made of playing ‘properly’ – even though doing so is often enough to make a classically trained musician tear their hair – and it still relies on a set of ultimately arbitrary norms. Yet quite far-reaching judgements are sometimes made about the standards of ‘proper’ that one’s fellow musicians personally express.

We might go further still by considering whether those expectations are even reasonable in the first place. In music, standards might reasonably differ between professional and amateur musicians, not to mention the opportunity one has had for formal training, or one’s ability to have purchased a high-quality instrument (judgements about which are, themselves, dictated why what is deemed to be ‘proper’…)

And yet, I can’t help but feel that there is some underlying truth that goes beyond personal differences or cultural norms. The most obvious is that a door handle which is not properly fixed is sooner or later going to present a practical problem. It may be that the musician who has not learned ‘proper’ technique will eventually find themselves limited by poor habits. In those senses, ‘proper’ is to some extent defined by the collective consciousness of overcoming past difficulties. When it comes to the way that door handle feels, maybe that sense of solidity that I wanted was subconsciously determined by my need for confidence that the handle would function well. The same might go for a firm handshake – or none at all. It is somehow about gravitas.

It becomes a lot more difficult in matters of aesthetics, taste and personal behaviour. But perhaps underlying even these is a ‘truth’ that certain behaviours make for greater confidence between and within individuals that are somehow connected to a desire for certainty or security. One of the good things about being in Switzerland is the sense, from all that Properness, that things are generally well with the world. Even where the avant-garde is embraced, the underlying principles of confidence are maintained. And while that may on occasions be illusory, on a day-to-day basis, I think it is quite important for our mental well-being.

When it comes to matters like speech or dress, as Richard Goodwin suggests, maybe our tendency to opt for a rather superficial ‘comfort’ betrays a lack of willingness to make the effort required to achieve anything more demanding. And in any case, comfort is a state of mind, not dress – even without the problem that dressing down can impose its own tyranny on those who would prefer things otherwise.

The sense of insecurity that a loose and wobbly door handle can create is perhaps more of a common and significant experience than my fitter understood – and one that he might have done well to think about, as I am now less inclined to employ him again. I am no apologist for maintaining the stuffy status quo just for the sake of it, but perhaps more thought ought to be going into the underlying values which various courses of behaviour transmit, because throwing the baby of long-established truths out with the bathwater of redundant propriety really is no better.

Postscript.
A telling footnote to the door handle episode was the difficulty that I had in finding bolts to fit. I visited five different local outlets, where I was told that such things were not obtainable “because no one ever bothers to do it like that”. In the end I had to order them online, and they turned out to have been imported. So much for such things not being culturally-defined.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

More schoggi…

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When we were in Lausanne last month, we stopped at another grand cafe that I have occasionally frequented. Moutarlier is situated in the Place de la Palud, near the city’s central fountain and glockenspiel clock, so an outside table normally does nicely. In fact, I don’t ever recall going inside before. However, use of the facilities dictated on this occasion – and quite a revelation it was.

I’m mentioning this because for me it exemplifies the Swiss outlook on their simultaneously historic-yet-modern country. Popular image of the country is, of course, very twee – all wooden chalets and Heidi meadows. There is indeed a lot of ‘heritage’ to look after – and yet once again this belies the real country – a nation that is not afraid to take a very progressive approach to much of what it does.

I didn’t take my camera with me – so I am relying here on images from Moutarlier’s own website. From the outside, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is another institution unchanged for decades (in fact, it opened in 1996). The exterior is rather grand – and largely intact. And yet… inside one encounters a pretty avant-garde modern decor quite deliberately at odds with the quaint exterior. But somehow it works: the basics of grande confiserie have been respected, as have the specific needs for whiling away the afternoon in strikingly auspicious surroundings. I also like the nods to traditional Swiss architecture, such as the wood panelling. The quality of the design and materials is also excellent – and I fully expect it to be the same in however many years’ time it is before I visit again.

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In some ways it is the complete opposite to Britain’s approach, where it still seems that everything either needs to be made to look “historical” even when it isn’t – or superficially modern in a way that will fade and date in just a few years. Much of the time it is in fact nothing more than flimsy shop-dressing which will need to be ripped out and replaced with something else when fads change – and before it has even got an established identity. Even when we British do contemporary, we somehow mostly lack the confidence to give it the ‘edge’ that makes it work, let alone something that will last for decades, as I suspect the interior of Moutarlier will. In fifty years time, it will be renowned for its period interior… We by contrast, are too timid by half – and then we wonder why our modern design often doesn’t deliver the goods. Like anything else, quality counts, and so does continuity – even when it is radically reinterpreted. In fact, perhaps that is the secret of the Swiss success.

At a retail centre near me, the original fake village ‘High Street’ is presently being reconfigured with something rather more contemporary – but again very ‘safe’ and quite probably equally ephemeral. In the end it is just the latest engineered-consciousness stage-set backdrop against which people can part with their cash. But at least it has a new Lindt shop, so the chocolate will remain constantly, Swiss-ly good, even if the architecture isn’t.

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Big problems in miniature

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Sometimes profound truths can be found in obscure places. Underlying the whole Brexit issue is the matter of national perspectives and culture, yet outwith Remainer online groups this is still seldom being discussed. (There is an exhibition currently running in Bonn called Unrequited Love – about the German love of many things British – and the utter disregard that is this country’s reply).

You might not expect to find it in something as apparently trivial as the world of model railways – but I think it is there. (On second thoughts, we might reflect that if those attitudes are real, they will indeed be evident precisely in the nooks and crannies of national life where people lower their guard).

Railway enthusiasm is by some measures the second most popular male hobby (after fishing). I have been afflicted since my youngest years, most particularly by the strange urge to capture what I see in model form. Perhaps the public perception of railway modelling has been shifted somewhat recently by the TV series The Great Model Railway Challenge – though for those serious about their hobby, there is a feeling that the sensationalism and gimmickry of that show has overlooked the slow, patient craftsmanship of the finest modellers. Be that as it may, looking at the attitudes expressed in the modelling fraternity itself can be informative.

Perhaps the best way of doing this is to look at publicly-expressed attitudes, as seen through the hobby press (as in what will sell) and its widespread manifestation in model railway exhibitions.

Attitudes to non-British modelling in the UK are revealing. There are perhaps half a dozen monthly magazines for the hobby. Several of them actively refuse to publish articles about non-British subject matter. The market-leader, Peco, which has published Railway Modeller for 70 years now, far-sightedly set up a dedicated magazine as long ago as 1979 to cater for the perceived niche that modelled non-British subjects. It was called Continental Modeller, a misnomer as it covers the rest of the world – but the point was clear: there is a divide between the main, domestic market and those few who look elsewhere. While the dedicated magazine was welcome and has thrived, the effect has to been to lock non-British modellers into their own little bubble, while the mainstream never sees anything non-British.

Others of the magazines, not least British Railway Modelling, overtly refuse overseas subject matter. One might have thought that that name refers to the location of the modelling, but no: it refers to the subject matter. At least it’s honest, I suppose. And while the up-market Model Railway Journal has very occasionally featured non-British models, it has always treated it as an exception and a curiosity.

Underlying this is typical British prejudice. The more I think about it, the more I think it reflects a wider reality: it’s not necessarily deliberate, so much as what was in the cultural ‘air’ we breathed. The received wisdom in the modelling fraternity is that the continentals don’t produce good models. They are supposedly dominated by brightly-coloured plastic kits and trains that run far too fast, and are really glorified toys – in contrast to the British obsession with grimy ultra-realism. There is a grudging acceptance that the Americans sometimes produce good models – but as with everything, they are mostly too big and brash for British tastes. Little has been done to challenge such preconceptions.

Also noticeable is a striking asymmetry in the situation: the current edition of Hornby Magazine, for example, does include a model built by a German – of British railways. But we are not ‘allowed’ to see the work of Germans modelling their own railways – or indeed of Britons modelling them – except in Continental Modeller. Knowledge of continental railway systems amongst British enthusiasts is widely negligible. By contrast, I was recently approached by the editor of one of the large German magazines, Eisenbahn Journal, for articles on some of my methods. I know from experience that continental magazines cover a wider range of prototypes than just their own national ones. The mindset is more open, the reach wider.

In a striking parallel to the wider situation, British modelling has been kept separate by accidents of history: we model in scales slightly but significantly different from the rest of the world, and the differences are enough to prevent inter-changeability. In most cases, the British versions are less accurate compromises of what was being done elsewhere. If you want n’th degree of accuracy in Britain, you have to do it the hard way and make it all yourself…

Perversely, there seems to have been a grudging counter-current underlying this: for all the condescension, there was an acceptance that continental commercial models were more reliable and finely-made than ours, which were crude and unreliable by comparison. Top of the pile, yet again, are the Swiss whose models are made with the same precision as their watches (at prices to match). But that has now largely changed: our models are now almost entirely made in China.

The parallel can be taken further, for there is another side to the story. In recent years, there has been a noticeable growth in interchange between the exhibition circuit in Britain and the continent. Dutch models in particular are not unknown in Britain – but certainly less so than some of the best British models which are increasingly invited to the big continental shows. There is undoubtedly a genuine admiration for British realism modelling on the continent; I have experienced this myself with my latest model which portrays a French scene, and I have had requests (granted) from French modellers to visit. One is coming in ten days’ time. But once again, there is generally much less interest shown at large in the other direction. The internet has become a significant fact here as everywhere: it is easily possible to see what is happening on the continental scene – but in my experience it is largely emasculated by the sheer lack of interest.

There is, on the continent, an organisation called FREMO (Friendship of European Railway Modellers) which lays down basic parameters which allows modellers to connect their modules to assemble giant super-models. It is almost unknown in Britain.

What I think we see here is a microcosm of Britain’s relationship with the continent: one in which the majority of people here remain determinedly isolated, wanting to have little to do with outside influences, which they genuinely believe are inferior to the home-grown version. The admiration British modelling receives is just not reciprocated. It is not that British modelling is without its merits – indeed the standard can be high. But there are just as many plasticky, toy-like models in the UK as elsewhere, and many very fine models on the continent, some of which knock the average British effort into a cocked hat. But by refusing to lift their eyes from their own domestic baseboards, most British modellers seem to have at best a distorted view of this, and at worse they remain in complete ignorance of good practice elsewhere, the sharing of which could enhance their own efforts. Therein lies the disadvantage this country repeatedly puts itself at by its refusal to integrate.

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And that is without the general camaraderie that comes from sharing one’s hobby. I now have railway-enthusiast friends in several other countries, and the interchange is great. Our shared hobby provides an excellent vehicle for international friendship – and what’s more, I now know a lot more about not only the railways but architecture, geography and language of those countries as a result.

In this one small teacup, it seems we can sum up the attitudes that underpin our current problems – and until they change so thoroughly that it can be seen in such esoteric parts of British life as railway modelling, I fear we will not get over them. There is little sign of that happening.

But there is one final aspect where the wider pattern is replicated in the hobby: since control systems went digital, most of the best technology that railway modellers are using comes from one place: Germany. And we buy that shamelessly.

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Above and below: The work of Dominic Burraud

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Blame it on Mary.

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Mary Plain was a small bear. She lived in the Bear Pit in Bern – at least in the imagination of Gwynedd Rae, who wrote her children’s stories in the 1930’s, and which were a youthful favourite of mine. She has a lot to answer for.

Every time I pass through Bern, a necessary ritual is to go and say hello to Mary’s descendants. The bear pit as drawn in the books was quite accurate: a pair of round, sunken stone compounds, with various (rather denuded) trees for climbing, a large bath and sleeping quarters at the back. As I child, I was delighted to see that you could indeed buy carrots and sugar lumps to feed to the bears.

We made our latest visit a couple of weeks ago, on the way back from Lausanne to Basel, when the city was looking especially mellow in the late-afternoon glow of a sunny September day. Pleasingly, the Swiss have moved with the times when it comes to animal welfare, and in a neat reversal, the original bear pit is now an exhibition space and gin bar containing humans, while the bears roam a much larger and more naturalistic enclosure outside, on the steep hillside leading down to the river Aare. Now the trees have grown, however, it is much more difficult to spot them…

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(Library picture)

Despite its being their capital, amongst the Swiss the Bernese have a reputation for being slow and lumpen. (“Why shouldn’t you tell a Bernese a joke on a Wednesday? Because he might laugh in church on Sunday…”). On the train into Bern earlier in the day, we had an impromptu conversation with a not-at-all lumpen young Bernese man, who was returning from visiting his girlfriend in Basel. He told us, though, that he does indeed like Bern because although it is the capital, “it is just like a large village”. But it still has some pretty swish quarters, if my experience is anything to go by, of the one where, a good many years ago I once went to a rather smart party. Even if it did go by the name of Bümpliz…

There can be few capital cities where you can see wooded hills at the end of the main street (and on some days snow-capped Alps too), and yet at the same time indulge in a spot of serious shopping or eat at a top-notch restaurant (avoided, given the distinctly non-provincial prices…). Bern has a wonderful character, and as with the other larger Swiss centres, its conservatism is pleasingly spiced with a noticeable undercurrent of trendy urban rebellion. It is a place that moves slowly and deliberatively, but always with its eyes on the future.

The centre of the city lies on a neck of land surrounded by the deeply-incised valley of the Aare, giving a dramatic setting, the main streets gradually sloping down towards the sharp point of the meander, while both road and rail routes are forced to approach over dramatic high bridges. The outer sides of the valley are scattered with desirable villas, while it is possible to indulge in a spot of river swimming here in the city centre, as in Basel. Topographically, the city has a superb natural arena.

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Many of the timeless buildings have decorated shutters, and are built from a sandstone that is a particular shade of mustard-green that seems to be found nowhere else. Quintessentially Swiss. It goes without saying that the public transport is peerless, even if the main station was rebuilt in the seventies in the style of Birmingham New Street. Here, twice an hour, inter-city trains from all over Switzerland draw up at adjacent platforms so that easy interchange is possible from almost anywhere to anywhere.

We love the arcaded streets, a larger version of those all over Switzerland which were, of course, never flattened by the ravages of the Twentieth Century. It’s all original. The old clock tower and the square outside the parliament building are straight from a fairy tale; visiting them, on the way to the bears, is another ritual. Even more than elsewhere in Switzerland, the shop-keepers seem to take a pride in making the most attractive window displays imaginable, which promise to turn the most mundane of purchases into a super-stylish adventure. I decided to make a small photo-survey of some of the present ones – see below.

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I like the scale of Swiss cities: I know exactly what the young traveller meant: it is a capital built on a very human scale, just as Switzerland is a nation built on an equally human scale. Ironic really, considering the physical grandeur all around. Maybe the ever-present mountains give the Swiss a sense of their own, human, insignificance?

My amusement with Bern’s slowness got its own back, however. As we were leaving the station, I was stung by a wasp. Being Bernese, it moved slowly enough that I was able to bat it away before it did its worst. But it left its venom to work a very gradual inflation of my right arm over the following two days, which then lasted a good week. Even the smallest inhabitants know that slow and steady brings results that are both progressive and unchanging over long periods of time.

I like Bern precisely because it feels both thoroughly modern and timeless. Thanks to Mary Plain, we have come to know quite well another Swiss city which subtly, perhaps unintentionally, drives home all that could be so much better about the life that, inexplicably, one has to live somewhere else.

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Below: a short photo-study of Bern’s shop windows…

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Morges please!

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Some places are just naturally blessed. Consider, for example Morges, a small town of 15,000 people on the shore of Lake Geneva a little to the west of Lausanne. I have known it for many years –and it was the place where I once took my wife-to-be, to cure her leg-pulling that my near-obsession with Switzerland was nothing more than rose-tinted imagination. It worked.

I suppose it’s the geographer in me that means I rarely go anywhere simply to switch off; travel is an opportunity for gentle, observational research. I am drawn to examine the differences between places, why they exist, and the effect they have on people’s lived experiences. It is patently not true that people and places are the same everywhere – but precisely how and why they are different can be complex, and behind the physical exterior lies a cultural landscape that is even more difficult to divine. In the case of Switzerland, as well as my general appreciation of the country’s more well-known attributes, I have become fascinated with what makes it tick. And yes, on occasions that can appear quite obsessional.

As with much of Switzerland, it’s not a matter of being on a different planet; it’s just that things there tend to fail to work badly, in the way they can do elsewhere. Morges is the kind of place that I suspect many would agree would be something close to a dream or ideal – and yet it is entirely real – and therefore realisable. True, it has an exceptionally beautiful setting, but more than that, the Swiss always make the most of what they have: a small town centre that in some countries would be peeling and faded, half the shops either boarded up or filled with junk shops is, instead, beautifully maintained, artfully lit, and full of genuinely interesting small shops and eateries.

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The main street.

The traffic, while busy, is generally subordinated to pedestrians, and there is plenty of opportunity just to enjoy being there. What puzzles me rather, as a Briton, is that there is very little sign of the town suffering from the onslaught of online retailing, as is so obviously happening in my own country. The only evidence I found was the hoarding of a new mixed development near the station which talked about boosting the life of the town centre.

I think the answer is one that Britain would do well to note: the shops are not the cloned bulk-warehouses of conglomerates; most of them appear to be small, and individually-owned. They offer a range of goods that is genuinely enticing, high quality, and often displayed with panache. There is not a fast-food outlet or chain restaurant in sight. It makes using the town centre a desirable and rewarding experience, and this surely has to be the way forward.

As a non-native, it’s hard to get to the bottom of Morges’ seemingly charmed life. It is hardly ordinary – that would be nigh-on impossible given its location on the Rivièra Suisse, former home to the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Roger Moore, Charles Chaplin and Freddie Mercury – but it is seems largely by-passed by those on the Geneva – Lausanne – Montreux tourist drag. Judging by the levels of social interaction observed in the streets, most people there are locals – though that can perhaps conceal who those ‘locals’ are.

A little research shows that nearly a quarter of residents were born in the town, another quarter elsewhere in the Canton (region); a further 20% were born elsewhere in Switzerland and the remaining 30% is from elsewhere in the world. That is perhaps not surprising given Morges’ position between two international cities (ICRC and UN in Geneva, International Olympic Committee in Lausanne). But it is not unusual in Switzerland, where nearly the same percentage nationally is not Swiss. It is, in many ways a ‘just’ a local, provincial town. It has a well-known tulip festival in spring which brings in the tourists – but otherwise it is largely configured for its local population. I once went to an evening class on motor mechanics there.

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The waterfront.
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Art Deco restaurant on the lake front.
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Lausanne in the distance.
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The lakeside promenade.

 

It’s too easy to dismiss the solid, refined quality of the place as the product of one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Undoubtedly, that is a significant factor – but more important is how the money is spent: invested in a high-quality public realm, excellent public transport, a well-maintained historic centre and beautiful landscaping, all of which are accessible to the whole population. It is not wealth, for example, that stipulates that lake shorelines in Switzerland must maintain continuous public access – something that elsewhere even Roger Federer is struggling to overcome.

It is not wealth alone that established the tulip festival, or the year-round programme of cultural events. Nor is it wealth alone that seems to make the Swiss populace take so much care over everything they do, from personal appearance, to the cleanliness of the streets and the beauty of even quite ordinary shop windows. Twenty years ago, I bought a shower curtain with a silly cartoon Swiss cow on it in the Morges branch of Interio. It is still as good as new.

Unlike many places with glossy exteriors, Swiss quality is real. Judge for yourself from the quality of this small town’s municipal website here.

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The tulip festival.

It is easy to dismiss Morges as a place living a charmed life – but many of my observations about it could equally apply to almost any similar town in Switzerland. What’s more, in Britain I suspect that not only would many equivalent small towns be struggling with the effects of decades of under-funding, but they would be desperately clinging to what is left of their ‘heritage’ And yet Morges is busy, in conjunction with Swiss Railways’ property arm, building an entirely new urban quarter next to the station, that will combine public space with a school and crèche, offices, shops and apartments – all built in a modern style that would do credit to some of the smarter bits of London. So different from the fight a few of us have had in our local town to get anything other than Disney-esque fake cottages built.

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Apartment in the new quarter being built near the railway station.

It was good to be back in Morges after several years in which we lost our local connection. We did the customary walk along the lakeside, had the ritual (superb) ice cream from our regular kiosk and enjoyed a crêpe lunch in the lovely main street. But the real wealth of the place is simply its superb natural setting, looking across the Lake with its constant animation of paddle steamers, yachts and water-skiers, to a grandstand view of the Mont Blanc massif. It is just as glorious, in a quieter way, in winter.

The problem with Switzerland is that one is daily confronted with one’s ideals made real. Morges is the kind of place I would love my actual home to be, a place where one can imagine putting down deep roots, and feeling really proud of where one lived. Of course it does not do to be taken in purely by physical appearances, but I know the country well enough after a lifetime of visits, to know that Swiss quality is not a sham.

My sense, from being in the country, is of a place that is generally content, stable and reassuring: a place where the balance between what you put into life and what you get out of it is right, where life is lively without often being fraught, where it is possible to live genuinely well. That Switzerland regularly appears at or near the top of global life satisfaction surveys would seem to confirm this.

Maybe it is true that people are conditioned by their environments. All the Swiss need to do, in which case, is to capitalise on what they inherited. And they do. As I said, some places are just naturally blessed.

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Mont Blanc, seen from Morges.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Snacking for the soul…

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I’ve always treated it as pretty much  self-evident that creative activities, in the widest sense, enrich life. Unfortunately it is a point of view that is far from universal in the U.K., where money spent on public art is often condemned as a waste of money that could be spent on that totem of indignant populism, “schools’n’ospitals”. (Never mind the argument that spending money on things that improve well-being might actually yield a return in the form of better all-round health…).

Then there is the problem that, as with everything in Britain, The Arts come pre-loaded with class-overtones and resentment, and it’s always easier to argue that such things are elitist than to advocate them, to decry rather than support.

It has always been a particular difficulty in the county where I live, which is not exactly known for its enlightened liberal values. My local authority does not even have a department for “cultural services”. Nothing whatsoever to encourage its citizens to nurture their souls. A few years ago, there was a huge outcry at the expense when the local town opened a rather radical new art gallery. 

It was therefore good to see the well-being claim being reinforced twice in the last week, without my having to venture more than a dozen miles from home. Despite being somewhat controversial, Colchester’s installation of brightly-coloured umbrellas certainly does what was intended, and lifts the mood in a town that has increasingly struggled against online shopping, Austerity  and the local council’s indiscriminate encouragement of out-of-town retail. And the reactions of passers-by left no doubt that people do respond positively to such gestures; I stood and watched while lunching on the hoof…

Just a few days earlier, I paid a visit to the sculpture biennial at Marks Hall Estate, a large garden and arboretum of about 200 acres, situated between Colchester and Braintree. This is the third such event, with over 300 works from sculptors all across Britain exhibited in a range of settings from coniferous woodland to the contemporary walled garden created there in 2003 by Brita von Schoenaich.

We’re not talking Epstein and Moore here – but that doesn’t matter. This is art to walk to, not, mostly,  the stuff of in-depth critique. The sculptures range from the rather twee to the classically-abstract and techno-kinetic, with a (mercifully small) helping of soft-commercial bling in between; there is something to please most, sympathetically displayed amongst the borders, trees and lakes of the estate. It was a genuinely uplifting experience after a day of unceasing rain, to walk and appreciate.

Despite indifferent weather, the garden was filled with people who seemed to agree, that art does indeed uplift the soul. Essex may be known for its philistinism, but maybe times are changing.

The sculpture exhibition runs until 31st August. Details here and images below…

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

It can’t be done

shires

Way back in the Nineties, the design team Richard Seymour and Dick Powell made a series of programmes for Channel 4, in which they fundamentally redesigned everyday products to improve both their functionality and aesthetics. The most memorable was Designs on Your Loo; the full programme can be watched here.

In it, they worked with Bradford-based sanitary-ware manufacturer Shires in an attempt to develop their product. The pair travelled the world in search of the cutting edge of WC design – and found it notably at that time in Japan. They brought their ideas back to the company – where they encountered a deep-seated resistance. At the time, the company was a long-standing and significant mid-market player producing a range of pseudo-traditional suites, complete with cheap wooden seats and ornate phoney-brass handles, all with dainty, faintly ridiculous ‘heritage’ names. There is a memorable moment in the film where one of the company’s managers proudly shows Seymour and Powell the extra-curly “design features” that the company added, supposedly to make the product more attractive. Powell was incredulous, observing that all it did was make the thing harder to clean. Design is not a matter of superficial curly bits.

As the duo persevered (with the rearguard support of Shires’ deflated one-man design team) against interfering but ignorant management, they did eventually produce a compromise product. The company then rolled this out with enough fanfare for a world-first. But for me, the abiding memory is of a significant British manufacturer whose methods and attitudes had not changed in decades – and which saw no need to do so. The Market, they said did not want anything new; the existing retro-range was sufficient; the risks were not worth taking.

The immediate response to new challenges was, “It can’t be done”.

This programme has stuck in my memory because it is a striking metaphor for this country’s wider difficulties.

In the past week, I have heard a UK-resident Dutch woman ranting about how this country is so far behind the curve when it comes to convenient and sustainable public transport. I have also had a meeting with representatives of a major building company, which gave a clear impression that corporately it was not interested in innovation. The implication was that the market will not support it – even though this part of the market was telling it to its face, quite the opposite.   It is the white-knicker argument all over again*.

It is also seen in the recently-released designs for the temporary House of Commons (needed while the original is (belatedly) refurbished). Rather than take the opportunity to experiment with a new format, the design is a copy of the original, a pastiche worthy of Shires. And let’s not even consider the passed-up opportunity to move parliament out to the regions for a while… Everything militates against change, even when the need for it is overwhelming.

The same attitude was manifest some months ago at a local planning forum that I attended. At the outset, the chairman said, “I will rule out of order any discussions of good practice in other countries: this is Britain we are dealing with”. And at a stroke, many excellent potential solutions were dismissed as unworkable. The aforementioned building company made the same comment a few days ago: “we need to work within the realities of the British context”.

Taken at face value, it is hard to argue. But even assuming it is not just a convenient excuse for inaction and short-termism, it does not deny the underlying problem: just why is the culture of this country so resistant to even desirable or urgent change? An Anglo-Italian contact of mine (currently resident in Italy) put it succinctly: “The British are too afraid to go out of their comfort zone”. It is an observation that could be used time and time again.

Sadly, the same mentality also seems to pervade our administrative functions: planning issues seem to encounter as much resistance there as from the developers. The building company mentioned earlier admits that it is partly cautious because it does not want to waste time developing designs that will be thrown out by ultra-conservative planning authorities – some of whom appear even to be selectively ignoring the more progressive parts of their own planning guidelines. I have encountered similar resistance myself – the impression is of an organisation paralysed by red-tape and stuck in a hidebound, backward-looking rut that stifles innovation.

I was first struck by the disconnect between attitudes in this country and the continent around the same time that the Seymour-Powell film was screened. I often returned (from Switzerland in particular) clutching innovations that I had found there, which were nowhere to be seen in the U.K. Some years later, the same things would appear in this country, where they would be loudly hailed as evidence of how cutting-edge the nation was. It covered everything from the arrival of IKEA (whose Chuck-out-the-Chintz approach was in itself telling), through the fads for silk shirts, mid-length shorts and Birkenstocks and a wide range of new technologies, to films (even some English language ones seemed to have had continental release before they came to the U.K.). I even noticed it in the use of vinyl design-graphics on the sides of lorries and trains: vehicles on the continent were multicoloured and cheery for years while ours were still boring white or brown.

There isn’t the space here to delve deeply into the psychology of why this should be so – but I suggest that the false perception that we are cutting-edge when we are actually often behind the curve, is yet another manifestation of the insularity that we as a nation aren’t even aware we suffer from. We simply don’t see enough of what is being developed elsewhere. The institutional resistance meanwhile is the product of a sclerotic system that hasn’t been properly shaken up for far too long, where the status quo is just too comfortable, the punters just too docile – and the fact that it is easier to produce a new sound-bite than a genuine innovation. It’s not that this country doesn’t produce innovators – but the frequency with which they still have to work abroad to succeed tells all.

Change can be uncomfortable – but it is sometimes necessary and always unavoidable: time moves forward, and things change. It’s called evolution. Often it brings benefits as well as problems: the trick is what you emphasise. The challenges are the same everywhere – and change for change’s sake  is not always good – though it can still be as good as a rest… But the real problem is one of receptiveness. Cultures that deny Change are themselves headed for extinction.

It is the same attitudes that are leading this country further and further up a blind, Brexit-induced alley: the mistaken belief that the Past is Best, that Britain Knows Best, that it is still leading the world, and can learn nothing from anywhere else. But when it comes to progressive change, It Can’t Be Done.

In the meantime, the world of sanitary-ware – as much else – has been captured by sleek continental designs from the likes of the German Duravit and Swiss Laufen. Companies that glory in bringing the latest designs and technologies to the market to improve people’s lives. A few British companies are now making cheap imitations, but that is all – and I don’t see them making much of the export headway that will be essential should Brexit finally happen.

The metaphor for the national mindset that was Shires went bust in 2009 – and I suspect the rest of the country is not far behind.

 

*The White Knicker argument: for many years Marks & Spencer said that they mainly sold white underwear because that was what their customers mainly bought…