Some designs barely date. The Dove Lamp was designed by Marco Colombo and Mario Barbaglia for the small Italian lighting company PAF in 1984. I first came across a photo of it in a book of contemporary design in the early 1990s, and was immediately taken with its minimal, elegant but hi-tech poise.
The blade of the lamp has a very thin side-profile, and it almost hovers in mid-air, only being supported towards one end on two thin metal legs, reminiscent of a bird just before landing. Seen from above, the blade tapers slightly from tail to the head. The angle of the lamp head is adjustable, and thanks to a counter-weight hidden in the tail, the lamp can be placed in any position. I think it looks best at a low angle with a long reach, almost defying gravity. The head is also beautifully slim with a perfectly-judged compound curve to its upper side, and the whole supposedly evokes a bird in flight – even if, to me, that head is more reminiscent of a duck than a dove.
Either way, Dove won many design awards, and was featured on the front of the International Design Yearbook in 1985. It was a fortune-maker for the small company that designed and manufactured it, and reputedly became the second-best-selling desk lamp in the world. It was also the subject of a famous litigation case, when the original company took the manufacturer of an inferior copy to court.
At the time, the price of the lamp meant there was no prospect of owning one, but the design stuck in my mind nonetheless, and in due course the matter was rectified. I remember walking down a street in Lausanne, past a rather cutting-edge interiors shop, and seeing one in the window. It still seemed fearfully expensive for a desk lamp – but I decided to stick my neck out – the first time that I had seriously dug deep for a piece of great design. At the time it was much more difficult to obtain these things in most of the U.K. It was duly carted home on the plane.
That version of the lamp incorporated an early attempt at infra-red on/off control – simply by swiping one’s hand above the base one could turn the light on or off, or holding it there dimmed the light. It had many years’ service in my home, being sufficiently eye-catching to grace the living room rather than my desk. Sadly, one day a freak flash of lightning gave the sensor a shock, and the thing gradually degenerated into a nervous breakdown, seemingly incapable of switching on and off properly – or staying such. Eventually, the flickering became so bad that it had to go.
Some years later, I was in need of a new desk lamp – so I had a second go with Dove. This time, it was easy enough to order from the U.K. – but the PIR version had been discontinued. So my second Dove lamp has the more conventional flat base with manual on-off switch. It loses a little of its elegance compared with the earlier version, whose base sloped in opposition to the arm, but it is still a great piece of design. This one came from Nemo, the company that seems to have taken over the design before discontinuing it in 2020. It seems that Dove is now quite sought-after.
We have been making some changes around our home in recent months. Out has gone the T.V. (which we never watched) – leaving a hole in a rather key location. Having viewed literally thousands of other lamps online (I am not keen on the clunky retro-Scandi styles that seem to be everywhere at present), it suddenly struck me that I should move the Dove lamp from the office back into the living room – and suddenly that space came right. The Dove fits perfectly – that poise is still magnificent, the tension between the elegant weightlessness and the matt black surface still attracts – and the white wall it is now against sets off its slim silhouette beautifully. It is as much a sculpture as a light, particularly since the actual light source is now concealed.
1980s design seems to be going through the phase that many do, of being deeply out of favour – but as with all eras, the decade threw up a few items that have gone on to have iconic status, and never seem to date no matter what their setting. The Dove lamp is now perhaps not as well-known as it might be – Richard Sapper’s Tizio lamp for Artemide eventually eclipsed Dove in the icon stakes – but in my opinion, it is Dove that is the more appealing – an item whose presence immediately elevates its setting – and it fully deserves pride of place and its entry in the list of great, enduring works of design.
I could quite happily live in some art galleries. On visits to them, when Stendhal’s Syndrome threatens, my diversion is to find an inspiring space and imagine how I would inhabit it. Perhaps my best place for doing this is the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, whose building by Renzo Piano perfectly suits my modern tastes – not to mention its fine collection of Giacometti sculptures.
My chances of doing this are, of course absolutely zero – but I think there are lessons to be learned for the uses we put to our actual living spaces. You don’t have to be a man of Ernst Beyeler’s means or connections (he was a friend of Picasso) to curate a collection and make your home a gallery of your own.
I fear the resolutely lowbrow mainstream in this country would not spare me a disparaging comment were I to admit to such ambitions. Sadly, I suspect the idea of buying art is another thing that many feel is ‘not for them’, conjuring images of rarefied elitism even if they are not terrified by imagined financial nightmares.
It need not be so. The first thing to do is remember that in one’s own gallery, the only person one needs to please is oneself; the second is to realise that neither need the prime consideration be the financial input (let alone output).
What I like about some of those galleries is the monumental quality of the spaces that they, like other good architecture, create. They have a ‘presence’, often found in stillness (but also animation) that is palpable when one is in them, that can make time seem to stand still, and that for a short time removes one’s life from more mundane contexts.
This atmosphere itself can almost count as an exhibit; more than once I have spent more time taking in the building than the collection. It’s hard to capture in words, but this timelessness is something that inspires me when it comes to interior design; a space should have a character and identity that moves it beyond being a mere receptacle or backdrop for prosaic activities; such spaces alter their relationship with the people who occupy them, amplifying a feeling of continuity and the sense that civilisation is bigger and longer lasting than mere individuals. Great architecture is one of the ways in which cultures anchor themselves in time and place – but it need not be limited to the grandiose. I find this most often in the sparse spaces of modernism, but also find in them an affinity with medieval religious buildings and the villas of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
This perceived depersonalisation might turn many people off, but I like it: it can add to rootedness, rather than detract from it. Here, it helps, I suppose, that we live in a building that is 130 years old, and which has had former lives as a school, community rooms and a business centre. Yet in that time, we are amongst the first people actually to live in the building…
From the perspective of creating one’s own art ‘gallery’, it helps us to have a three-metre height to play with, which give our rooms breathing space – but that is not to say that the greater intimacy of smaller spaces cannot succeed in a different way.
I still remember the time we brought our first original piece home and hung it. Bought for a ‘significant’ birthday, the artist-made print from a photograph of the Cambridgeshire Fens utterly transformed the room. A photographic print it may be, but it has the effect of a Rothko-esque abstract, and it seemed to draw one’s vision towards it, while exuding a calm that reached the whole space, in a way my previous more mundane wall-art never had. It had had the same effect when I first saw it from a distance, in the window of a gallery in Cambridge.
Following from this, over the past fifteen or so years, has been a small sequence of other acquisitions. We have tended to buy ceramics; here in East Anglia, there are a good many sculptors and ceramicists if one knows where to look, and we like the tactility and possibility for interaction with three-dimensional pieces. We have bought from galleries in Cambridge, Dedham, and Norwich; other pieces have been found more widely, from London and Manchester to Basel and Copenhagen. Most recently, we acquired two pieces (see header photo) by the local ceramicist Moira Goodall, from Sculpt, a gallery just a few miles from our home, where the Dutch-born artist Maurice Blik has created a lovely, pared-back display space in an out-building of his home.
Being interested in modern design, we have also tended to blur the boundaries – for example, one wall ‘sculpture’ is in reality a newspaper rack by the Danish company Rosendal, bought in Copenhagen, but never used for its intended purpose, and simply appreciated for its form and finish. Similarly, a small inheritance allowed the purchase of a Vitra original of Sori Yanagi’s classic butterfly stool, again more for its form than function. Alongside them are a number of more clearly art pieces, which we like to think sit well in the little personal gallery that we have created.
The process of purchasing an art piece is something of a special experience in itself; by conventional definitions, what one is buying has no purpose other than its own existence, and whatever cerebral or aesthetic impact it can have. Yet it somehow generates a sense of doing something very affirmative. It might easily be seen as a waste of money – but I can say with confidence that each of the dozen or so pieces we have acquired have more than repaid the relatively modest outlays in the beauty and gravitas that they bring to our home, and thence both satisfaction and a sense of wellbeing to those within it. It should also be mentioned that we have never experienced the condescension that might be expected from such quarters, only delight in shared appreciation – even though we only ever spend very modest amounts compared to many of the price tags we see.
I somehow doubt that our collection will ever need its own museum, as Ernst Beyeler’s eventually did when it was bequeathed to the Swiss nation. And yet that rather august individual can also teach us another thing: according to a friend who lives in the same small Swiss town, Beyeler – in the best tradition of discrete Swiss egalitarianism – was an unassuming man who would bid you a friendly Good Morning as you passed him in the street: a fine collection of art need not a superiority complex make.
In a similar way, the existence of the Own Art scheme (which we have used twice) to make purchases of art more affordable, reinforces this message: art should not be only for the wealthy or rarefied few, but can enhance everyday lives in a way that mass-produced trinkets fail to do. Our only rule and advice is to set the bar high and only buy what one really, instinctively likes – but (circumstances permitting) not to hold back when you see it; tomorrow it might not be there.
None of the pieces we have bought cost more than a few tanks of petrol, and none will ever make it into the category of ‘great’ art; But they speak significantly to their owners, and thus they are much greater value than any external utility or recognition requires. And that is surely the first point of art.
Some years ago, we were on holiday with our Swiss friends in eastern Switzerland. Alfred decided he wanted to see inside a particularly venerable old hotel in the area, so when we passed it one day, he strode up to the reception desk and asked to have a look around. Even though none of us was remotely dressed for such a venue and clearly had no intention of checking in, we got our (unsupervised) look round, no obligation expected. Indeed, I sensed pride at this evidence of the hotel’s reputation. It is social fearlessness like this and other similar incidents, that gradually made me conclude that the Swiss are relatively unencumbered by the kind of class consciousness that might prevent many Britons from doing similarly in their own country. But then, Switzerland was founded precisely on the democratic rejection of its medieval overlords, and they seem to have kept the faith ever since…
The interesting thing about the Swiss is that despite their nation’s wealth, they mostly do not ‘do’ social showing off. Their shops abound with high quality products – even their bargain stores rarely sell complete rubbish – and yet it is hard to detect much social snobbery. (As I was told by a Swiss, “flashy” in that country is only done by expat incomers). Buying things is not widely seen as a form of recreation or statement – but when it happens, quality is to the fore. This does not seem to be regarded as the preserve of the wealthy, rather something that is just normal. Most people seem to live unostentatiously, but they still expect high quality homes, clothes, food, and services, and seem unselfconscious in their patronage of prestigious brands. “Because I’m worth it” does not have the narcissistic overtones that it does in Britain: maybe L’Oréal misjudged its message here? Compared with British consumers, the Swiss seem very considered; restrained, if quite demanding – and in control of their own behaviour.
I have seen similar elsewhere too – and I concluded, not for the first time, that it is the British who are the outliers. Somewhere, in their eagerness to consume voraciously there lies a hint of servility or guilt, as if we can only define ourselves by how much we buy. While many continental countries excel at producing high-quality commodities – with prices to match – what seems relatively absent is the idea that one is buying social status, rather than just a very good product. Whether it is an effect of their republicanism, or a lasting memory of the troubles wrought over the centuries by their elites, it seems to me that many continental nations have shed much of the class consciousness that many Britons still accept as a fact of life – that is, when they are not failing to notice it at all. It is not studied over-compensation that makes the point (which would in any case defeat it); it is just not there in any strength in the first place.
Politically-correct modern Britain, of course, denies such weakness – but a recent poll of my late-teenage students revealed that even as they claimed to be “unintimidated” by posh accents, they knew precisely what I was talking about, and perceived those who had them as “not like us”. Social class is not only a hangover preoccupation of the aristocracy – those on the other rungs still know their place just as well…
I strongly dislike this: it seems incompatible with the principles of modern democratic life which should emancipate people to be themselves – and depresses the expectations that many appear to have of their own lives. Hence the widespread tolerance of low standards and the mass-market blandness that allows producers to cut corners in pursuit of excess profit. Conversely, the attention given to conspicuous wealth feeds the status anxiety that defeats the liberating objective of genuinely good living.
As with all these matters, finding convincing explanations is difficult – but I suspect the “not for the likes of us” mindset (which is also permanently primed to snipe at anyone who disagrees) really is a legacy of enduring social polarisation, a highly uneven distribution of wealth, and perhaps a state education system that does not place enough emphasis on the non-utilitarian aspects of its purpose. We might also throw in for good measure an echo of a puritan past, an instinctive self-denying philistinism, and a climate that hardy cultivates the sensuous side of our nature. We just don’t do La Dolce Vita…
So, it seems this nation is no closer to democratising its quality of life than ever. We seem utterly unable to dissociate high quality from social elitism, let alone to realise that the best way to disarm it is to refuse to be excluded by it. The masses have been encouraged to focus on the false economy of buying cheap and often (but not so cheerful), by an overly strong retail sector on which the nation’s economy is heavily dependent. Those who do take notice seem more concerned with joining in the showing-off than disarming it, encouraged (staple-gun in hand) by the battery of aspirational makeover shows on TV. But for all the national emphasis on acquiring money and prestige, there seems to be precious little collective idea what productively to do with it once one has it. Meanwhile, the real elite is left to browse the boutiques of Chelsea in peace…
The objection of expense is often raised, but this too this is something of a red herring created by flawed basic assumptions – in particular, that Quantity is important. It fails to see that buying less but better is more satisfying, and you can sometimes substitute piles of cash with thought and effort. This is surely a lesson we all need to learn, if only for the sake of the environment.
I am mindful, though, of those for whom the only ‘choice’ available is between anything and nothing; it cannot be easy to exercise higher judgment when you are holding down three zero-hours jobs just to put food on the table. But even here, the general pressure towards conspicuous consumption can hardly help, while making different choices possible – for example by ensuring universal access to fresh rather than over-priced ‘convenience’ food must surely help. The potential gains are probably bigger at this end of society than for those who already live in the lap of luxury. For me, discernment is about thought, education and autonomy, not money – but for all the talk of good lifestyle choices, British society is still not good at helping people to make them.
A lesson from the pandemic might be that doing less but better does work. But I suspect that our conditioning is so complete, that even such rationality will struggle to overcome the blockages in many minds for why, as I have argued in the previous instalments, we too are worth it.
In the years since I could take my good mental health for granted, the things that can support a good quality of life have taken on a greater importance. It’s a tricky issue, and perhaps why many seem to duck it. It is probably dishonest to claim that our appreciation of a piece of fine cloth is only ever to do with its lustre and tactility, and never how it will make us look when we wear it. It is probably human nature to revel in our advantage and succumb to a little pampering. But I wonder whether the issue need be as convoluted as it often is in societies such as mine, that labours under the weight of centuries of ingrained social prejudice; perhaps others simply carry it more lightly.
So, to conclude this sequence of posts, here are some ideas to help combat that natural British sense of anxious self-deprecation, for which we then rush to overcompensate…
“I’ll see you next week!” said the lady I didn’t yet know was Mrs King as she strode past the gutter where the grubby-fingered five-year-old me was playing with my friends. I was mystified.
But the next week, I was indeed locked into a sequence of weekly lessons with the old-school but not unkindly piano teacher. I did my practice and a year later sailed through Grade One with a distinction. But the strict, solitary routine rapidly paled; there was no reward in the endless scales practice, nor in most of the dull pieces I was given to learn. Another year later, I scraped through Grade Two – and Grade Three never happened. That was the end of my musical career for a decade – with the exception of Singing Together, the BBC broadcasts in which we were exposed weekly to traditional song at primary school, which I loved.
In my mid-teens, I passed through and out of the trivialities of pop music in a couple of years, and through chance encounters with a tune book, a guitar and then a mandolin, I taught myself to play. In the years between then and the end of university, far too much of the time I should have been devoting to study was spent playing in bands with my friends. (Luckily, I had enough ability to carry my studies, but there was still a cost on results day…)
Nearly half a century on, I’m still playing traditional music, and it was a major support during Lockdown. Ten years ago, I switched from the mandolin to the fiddle, and picked it up quickly enough for it to become my main instrument – again mostly self-taught, with some online input and occasional steering from a friend who is a good player.
The College where I now work had no more teaching contracts for me this year, but offered work in Learning Support instead. As an incognito ex(?) teacher, this is affording a sustained insight into teaching in a range of other subject areas far distant from my own. It’s informative to see the teaching styles that are deployed. This is not a criticism of individuals, all of whom clearly know what they are doing – but the experience has reinforced my prior conclusion that the personal qualities of a teacher are a vital, and nowadays overlooked matter in the mix. Getting people qualified has become so serious a business, that both pleasure and distinctiveness seem to be getting squeezed out. Horses for courses, of course – and it is certainly true that pleasure means different things to different people. There is not a lot of visible evidence of disengaged students – at least at this stage of the year – but that seems in part because the young people themselves are now so po-faced about what they are doing.
It’s not entirely new. My sister, a skilled amateur classical violinist, summed it up a while ago: “I worked so hard at my music – and yet you seem to enjoy yours so much more…” The same seems to be true in the classroom: there seems to be a widespread absence of Joy. It’s not the teachers’ fault: as I said, they are all clearly very competent at doing what they have been told to do, namely conveyoring young people through their exams. What they are feeling inside, I cannot know. But I think I am also seeing what I have long suspected: the worthy and necessary process of becoming qualified is killing the one thing that makes learning worth it: the joy of doing it – well, joyfully. This is why the teacher’s freedom to practise is so crucial.
It’s been the story of my life: another well-meaning but off-target attempt by my parents to steer my music in my late teens also ended in failure, and my later involvement with a choral society came to an end with a change of musical director from a light-hearted (but highly skilled) individual to one who upped the formality stakes, introduced auditions and gave people a hard time if they ever missed a rehearsal. The dead hand of excessive seriousness should not be underestimated, even when it is well-meaning.
I’m not advocating trite ‘fun’: I’ve argued against that in education strongly in the past. There is no doubt that achieving great skill requires rigour; even an informal genre such as traditional music demands much self-discipline and close work to do it well. But there is more than one way of promoting it – and I fear that we now take education so seriously that the essential enjoyment is being squeezed into extinction. If we kill it, we extinguish the only flame that can really fuel that process in the longer term.
There is a difference between superficial “fun” and the deep enjoyment of developing one’s skills when done from genuine motivation. The heading photo is an unflattering picture of me playing at a recent gig; the expression is not agony, but a deep and very satisfying concentration in what is almost always the joyous buzz of playing music for other people – something that has driven me for all those years, in a way that over-serious, externally-imposed things never could.
I think the same process has occurred across my wider experience; despite that early lack of academic focus, later in life, I came back to self-motivated learning across a far wider range of subjects than the school options system ever permitted. My instinct took me somewhere similar in my career, always feeling the deep need to plough my own reflective furrow rather than blindly follow the constrained, corporate-approved one.
I may not have become a virtuoso; that does indeed require something exceptional – but for most people, this is not the issue – and I wonder even how many thoroughbred virtuosi would really have chosen that route from an early age, had the ‘choice’ not been imposed. While one may of course extend the principle of proportionate returns to the stratosphere, I wonder where the diminishing returns and opportunity costs start to set in. For most, a fulfilled life can and will come from lesser, but still satisfying achievement. Motivation is the key – that burning inner drive that makes you do worthwhile things.
My instinct didn’t play well in career terms. I enjoyed teaching, but those who sought to impose institutional conformity came closest to killing it. I think I can say now with confidence, that they nearly killed that which made it work for my students too. When I moved to a place that allowed me more discretion, back surged the enjoyment, motivation and sense of purpose many-fold. And it worked once again, for my students too. To me, that was the whole reason for doing it: the innate joy of good things done well. My sister, meanwhile, followed the accepted route, got to Oxford – and ended up locked into a conformist profession which she hates.
I am reading End State by James Plunkett, in which the former British policymaker examines the broken aspects of modern society. He has included education: both the preoccupation with the young at the expense of the life-long education that he argues is needed for both personal fulfilment and career adaptability in the digital economy – and the problem that it is utterly focused on bureaucratic processes whose ends are extrinsic and short-term. A rigid model, that was not the only conception of education that society could have adopted – and one that seems to me to kill much of what makes education valuable in the first place. It is now so much about ‘process’ that its more freeform aspects have been largely forgotten, or perhaps are no longer understood in the first place.
Plunkett argues that in all policy, ends should drive means, not the inverse, and those ends need to be ethical and humane, not just institutional or economic. A well-educated life needs to be based solidly on the joyous humane curiosity that provides the sustained motivation that externally-driven hoop-jumping mostly does not.
While looking up some finer fiddling points online recently, I found a discussion on, of all places, Mumsnet. It seemed to sum it up: a question from a mother with a child who was learning the classical violin but seemed not be enjoying it. As had I, she seemed to be responding more to the jigs and reels of traditional music. As the parent said: they are lively, but very fast. “What grade should my daughter be at before she tries to play them?” The calibration cart well and truly before the motivational horse.
To be frank, for the principal town of an attractive county, Ipswich is rather a disappointment. Having been a major port, it suffers from many of the post-industrial problems of much larger places: derelict land, low incomes and a workforce widely lacking many currently-marketable skills.
The town centre has some fine buildings, though it also suffers from more than its fair share of bland sixties and seventies development. The town was bombed during the second world war, and some of its inner areas seem never to have fully recovered.
The local authority seems aware of the difficulties and has made efforts to rebalance the town. It is an intractable problem: on the one hand, the local population has pressing immediate needs, and yet on the other, as many places have realised, the only real solution to urban decline is to try to attract new blood, hopefully in the form of high skill, high income arrivees, who will bring different lives and habits with them. But how to attract them to places that may not cater for their expectations?
The town centre has had several facelifts over the years, the latest of which seems to have improved some of its streetscapes – but there is only so much that can be achieved while those unappealing buildings remain… and the sad reality is, the local population does not much resemble the chic mannequins that populate the architects’ visualisations either in appearance or some of its behaviour. More Marseille than San Tropez…
Ipswich does, however, have one major ace: its waterfront, which for those interested in industrial archaeology, includes some iconic building such as the R&W Paul warehouses. I last visited the area maybe twenty years ago, when much of it was still semi-derelict, with just the early shoots of revival beginning to show. It was indeed starkly atmospheric, even near death.
In the meantime, a wholesale redevelopment has occurred, which is belatedly reaching its latter stages, after a stop-start experience following the 2008 financial crash, which hit a number of the developers hard. The aspirational role-model is not hard to see – a kind of Monaco or Cannes on the North Sea. A mix of renovation and new-build has created what I feel is a generally successful new quarter, with the planners’ habitual recipe of shops, restaurants and residential development. Some of the buildings are more successful than others (I do dislike post-modern re-interpretations of historic buildings, especially when the two sit cheek-by-jowl; it only devalues the real thing. The contemporary architecture, while uneven, is better). Fortunately, the decision was made to adopt modern street furniture rather than the fake Victoriana that was the default choice in early such schemes.
The fearless use of tall buildings echoes the old warehouses and grain silos, and has created an ‘amphitheatre’ with a skyline that successfully gives a sense of place in otherwise flat surroundings. The new University of Suffolk has also been lured to locate its campus on the waterfront, in the knowledge of a potential permanent supply of young for the bars and cafes and it has invested in reasonable examples of a building style that I fully expect in due course to become known as “University Modern”.
It is permanently high tide behind the inner harbour’s lock gates, which give out onto the Orwell estuary, a scenic ten-mile ria that stretches to the North Sea proper at Felixstowe. This means that the sleek yachts and cruisers that now populate the water need never sully their keels in the east coast mud… The still-working chandlers and marine estate agents lend an edge that means the area does not feel over-preserved.
If this were indeed Cannes or the south of France more generally, most of those units would be occupied by a mosaic of small independent traders, rather than the usual-suspect chain restaurant that normally invade such places in the U.K. and instantly turn what could be distinctiveness into just another sad high-street clone. Luckily, this has not entirely happened in Ipswich; while some of said chains are present, there also seem to be a number of local operations and the overall mix is reasonably successful.
Unfortunately, at present the waterfront remains disconnected from the town centre; while St Peter’s Street offers an interesting mix of independent shops, there is a tract of no-man’s-land of car parks, yards and indeterminate spaces that presumably were once home to a historic quarter, and really needs to be filled. There are some signs that this might be happening, but it is a large area and there is a long way to go. Hopefully it can be seen as an opportunity to create something genuinely characterful.
Our recent visit took place on a dull day in a disappointing August, when even the best imagination in the world could not make the climate look like the Riviera. However, in general, I think this area works; it doesn’t feel too contrived, and it is certainly a better use of this asset than the decaying wreck that I last saw. It has a more up-beat, and dare I say glossier, atmosphere than the rest of the town; in that, it seems surprisingly successful.
Coming decades will tell whether the area matures gracefully, or is allowed to go downhill again – all such areas tend to have hesitant gestations and can easily end up feeling permanently windswept and lost. It seems as though those in charge in Ipswich do have the right idea – maybe it is not in vain to hope that one day the county town may be a worthy centre for the rest of Suffolk. Cannes-do attitude needed…
Cities, according to Ben Wilson in Metropolis, his impressive new book, are humanity’s greatest invention. The close interaction between many thousands of human lives, and their messy, continuous cycle of decline and renewal are the heartbeat of human civilisation. Cities are where the heights of human sophistication are found – and also the depths of its failure.
A day’s flânerie in Nottingham recently provided ample evidence of this. Almost eighteen months after our last city trip, we finally took another. My wife’s new employer is based in the city, and she needed to show her face; I mostly went along as chauffeur to take the strain of the 270-mile round car trip. But it also gave me the chance of a day walking a city I last visited as a student in 1986.
The point of flânerie is as much the thinking one does as the shoe leather one wears through – and in about 13km around the city centre, there was plenty of both. It’s about observing city life in all its aspects from a slightly detached, even philosophical viewpoint; no surprise that it’s a French invention rather than a British. My academic interest in urban geography lends itself too, and always provides another reason to investigate and ponder, even (or perhaps especially) the nuts-and-bolts of the city that visitors and shoppers are not supposed to see. Wilson contends, as do I, that the British (and Americans) don’t really ‘do’ urbanism – not in the way continental Europeans do. Their instinct is to head for the cleaner air, quiet and privacy of the suburbs, which size-for-size sprawl far further in this country than in their continental equivalents where higher-density living does not only have extreme social connotations of penthouses and slums that it does here.
All three East Midlands cities (Leicester, Nottingham and Derby) are largely products of the rapid industrial expansion of pre-Victorian market towns through textiles and engineering. All three have signs of the decaying aftermath of their boom times: swathes of red-brick Victoriana of varying quality, areas of post-industrial dereliction, and vast tracts of terraces and bland, early 20th Century suburbs. But they never quite managed to acquire the full, high Victorian civic and cultural grandeur of their larger equivalents further north and west, let alone rival those of the continent, and conventionally are thought of as, well, rather dull.
Sadly, despite my best efforts, I still struggled to like Nottingham; despite its claim to be the principal of the three cities (population 330,000; metropolitan area 770,000), it feels to me like a missed opportunity. Leicester, for my money, is making far more of its modest assets.
Having left my wife at her workplace, I headed for the city centre; it was pleasant to stroll down a wide, tree-lined pavement for the first time in a while, as the city began its day. Unsurprisingly, there have been significant interventions in the time since I was last there; the most successful by far is the introduction of a tram system that both carries large numbers and lends animation to some of the streets. I wonder whether transport planners give consideration to the theatrical potential of their proposed networks; they should. Nottingham has got this right: the trams descent a steep hill before sweeping dramatically around into the main market square, in front of the imposing City Hall.
The square itself has been given new paving and fountains, and ought to be a grand civic space with few equals in provincial Britain. But it somehow misses the mark. I suppose I need to allow for the impact of Covid: all day long, the city had a slightly under-populated feel. While this made proceedings more comfortable, it also meant the absence of ‘buzz’. There are many empty premises, proportionately far more that in my local town, which seems to have survived lockdown relatively unscathed. The closure of Debenhams department stores has left holes in town centres across the country, but I would still have thought that the larger cities had more resilience to weather the storm than smaller centres. In Nottingham’s case, the boarded-up prime site is a large hole indeed.
I suppose I shouldn’t completely blame the city either, for the grubbiness. Local authorities in the U.K. have been so starved of funds that I suspect they simply can’t afford the daily cleaning that one sees in, for example, French cities. But it makes a noticeable difference when the dressed stone is not covered in the stains of takeaway food spills and worse…
A greater ‘miss’ is the lack of imaginative planting: at the height of an admittedly cool summer, the flowers should have been at their best – but the square mostly contained a selection of rather unkempt shrubs, only the display of cannas along the balcony of the city hall really making the grade. It could all have so much more flair…
The geographer in me seeks to assess the underlying socio-economic health of places I visit. Again, Covid may well be affecting the balance: the well-healed professional types are the most likely to be safely working from home, while the low-paid and less-fortunate were perhaps more likely still to be frequenting the city in person; it certainly seemed this way in the first part of the day. The numerous police patrols did not augur well, and I witnessed two altercations in the streets that morning…
For all my appreciation of life’s niceties, I am not an elitist. While the presence of a ‘top end’ is perhaps the most visible indicator of a city’s economic health, I dislike the exclusivity that it can create; cities need to be a mix, and good quality environments and opportunities should be available to all. But it is a two-way street: I am equally bemused by Britons’ inability to ‘inhabit’ their cities in the way the continentals do. This is not a product of wealth, so much as civic attitudes – and for all there were children splashing in the fountains, sadly I saw many people who seemed not to be treating their city centre particularly well, let alone with joy or pride. For many Britons, the city is a purely functional thing…
Once again, I suspect that this is partly a matter bigger than individuals: opportunity and conditioning matter. Like nearly every British town and city, Nottingham has become little more than a huge retail machine for the benefit of the same mainstream chains found across the nation. Meanwhile, I look for the presence and variety of independent shops; in most of the city centre, there were few of note. Nottingham has a reputation as a great shopping destination; I suppose it might be – if your idea of ‘great’ is large branches of all the predictable chains and fast-food outlets that appear everywhere… Expectations and perspectives also matter; the sense of the city as a proud, civic entity seems lacking.
Feeling rather dejected, I pushed on into the more peripheral parts of the centre, and here, things started to improve somewhat. Having done my homework, I knew where I was going – but the experience was still underwhelming: the billed “bijou cafés” in the city’s finest arcade, where I had planned to find an espresso, turned out to be a branch of Patisserie Valerie; alright as far as it goes – but hardly outstanding or distinctive. Again, it all depends on expectations – and mine have been tuned over the years by the superior experience of too many continental cities…
The Lace Market area is somewhat more successful: tucked away in the older part of the centre, it is home to the National Justice Museum, slightly more choice shops, numerous professional services and buildings of indeterminate use, some rather fine. There I found a few more interesting premises, not to mention a rather different type of inhabitant – but still relatively few of the really interesting outlets one might expect in a large city. Precious little, for example, by way of independent food or clothes shops – or even evidence of where they might previously have been.
In the early Seventies, Nottingham received some of this country’s earliest indoor shopping malls: the Victoria Centre, built on the remains of one of the country’s most atmospheric Victorian railway stations – but it is the other, the Broadmarsh Centre – which has recently made headlines. A vast, brutalist bunker between the remaining railway station and the centre, pre-pandemic it was being bulldozed – when the developer went bankrupt. It has been left, part-replaced, part ruin and work has only just resumed.
The whole area to the south of the centre is being rebuilt; the billboards suggest a much-improved environment will result, but still dominated by large-scale retail and commerce. The addition of a new central library and bus station is laudable – but whether this new generation of comprehensive redevelopment will prove superior to its predecessor, only time will tell. Trying again to be charitable, we perhaps take too much for granted in a long storyline here: the lifetimes of city buildings are measured in decades or centuries. We are only just getting round to replacing the disasters that too often were thrown up in the Sixties and Seventies just to fill the bomb sites created in the Forties… Many cities right across Europe suffered the same fate – though the success of the recovery was most certainly not the same everywhere…
Post-Covid, there is a debate in the city as to whether more retail capacity is still the best use for this site. The outcome is awaited, with a new city park having been mooted as an alternative. Again, time will tell, but loosening the dominance of big retail in the urban mix need not inevitably be a bad thing.
I eventually came upon two areas that proved the point: Hockley lies to the east of the city centre and is described as the city’s bohemian quarter. Well, I’ve certainly seen substantially more bohemian than this, but the narrow streets of this area are nonetheless occupied by precisely the independent shops and cafes that are so conspicuously absent in the rest of the city centre – and the vitality of the area did indeed prove the point.
After lunch with my wife’s new colleagues, I headed for the second: Nottingham Contemporary, an externally unprepossessing but nonetheless internally convincing modern art gallery. A pleasant hour was spent mooching around its three exhibitions and sitting out a passing rainstorm with a hot chocolate in an attractive (and once again in-house) café. I dwelt on the fact that five decades ago, express trains ran through this very spot on their way into the now-vanished Victoria Station: another building that the city would have done well to keep, rather than replace with a concrete bunker. Hopefully, we know better these days. One of my fellow rain-refugees was thinking the same, and a good conversation followed…
As I said, I wanted to like Nottingham; there is little that pleases me more than time spent in a lively and attractive city centre. But even allowing for Covid, Nottingham just isn’t there yet. There is a lot of redevelopment going on – but even more needed to the fabric of the historic city, much of which is still rather shabby compared with that in other city centres. Maybe it will be better in another decade, but what has taken so long? I can accept that Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow’s needs were more pressing – but there is in any case, only so much that physical renewal can do, no matter how much money is available. What is needed is ambition, imagination and flair – things that can lift rather predictable urban renewal into a genuinely vibrant and characterful place. It’s needed not only from the city leaders, but also by the regular citizens who populate the city day in day out. The clone-shopping experience does not encourage this, but nor does the willing complicity of the junk-food-and-trainers majority, which the architects’ drawings never show.
It wouldn’t be fair to compare Nottingham with the greatest European cities – but I have seen plenty of second-division equivalents on the continent that far outstrip it – Montpellier in France, for example is a similar size, even if its enviable climate gives it a head start… The problem, I suspect, is that really successful cities are cosmopolitan and even sophisticated – things the British, instinctively, as a nation are not.
Even at their Victorian height, British cities were about imperial bombast – but also mass squalor, the legacy of which is still with us. Nottingham is trying – but I’m still not sure most British cities really ‘get’ vibrant, spontaneous, democratic urbanism any more than they ever did, which is why so many of their more self-conscious efforts never really come off. It will be interesting to see what future visits reveal…
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
“Don’t be ridiculous: European is what I am when I don’t want to be British!” She had form, too, the woman who said this to me some years ago – as she divided her time between Sussex and Paris.
I’ve always felt “European” ought to be something Europeans do at home, though, not just when they’re playing away. But there is no doubt about it, even a quick shot of “continental” does wonders – which is why we had planned to take advantage of Eurostar’s cheap anniversary tickets for a post-Christmas day in Lille. This time, however, it was tinged with notes of both sadness and defiance: our day was to be our last blow-out as EU citizens – but also an act of defiance that the European life will go on regardless. Here’s a photo report.
Crawling out of bed at 06h00 on a Saturday in January is not to be recommended – but an early train to London (50 minutes) and a quick hop to St Pancras saw us ready for a departure around 09h00. It could all be so much quicker, of course, were it not for the paranoia that still treats Anglo-French travel as though it is a trip to the moon…
That aside, we had an excellent day in Lille. I have been countless times and know the place pretty well. I like its fine old town – but also its slightly gritty, post-industrial feel. It’s our nearest continental city – and certainly a better proposition than Paris or Calais for a day out. We arrived at around 11h30 local time, followed by a good mooch around the city centre, lunch at Paul – involving rather too much molten hot chocolate – and some retail therapy, even if mostly the window-cleaning variety. (Lécher les vitrines: literally, licking the windows). We did come home with a new table lamp, though, some of our ritual pates de fruits from Méert and some crazily-reduced purple leather gloves from Printemps (not for me…)
My wife had never done the city tour bus before – rather surprisingly we find these a good way to get a slightly wider perspective than one would on foot. (The Lille one takes in some of the new, modernist business districts too, for instance). When we called to book in the morning, it was not certain that the tour would run because of some expected demonstrations. We called back, to find the decision taken to go ahead. So the tour was undertaken – albeit with certain delays and diversions as we did manage to run into the middle of a manifestation gilets jaunes…
I really like Notre Dame de la Treille, Lille’s cathedral: dour on the outside but a surprising clash of tradition and colourful modernism on the inside.
By afternoon, the city was packed, as the sales are still in full swing, as is the Winter Fair that runs to the end of January.
We had decided to branch out in terms of dining; the particular challenge being to find somewhere that could cater for my vegetarian wife while giving me a traditional Flemish hit. France is slowly cottoning on with vegetarianism, and we had a number of places to check out. In the end, though, we allowed ourselves to be pulled into the Estaminet de Gand (Estaminet being a traditional Flemish eatery) on the Rue de Gand, with an hour to linger over apéros and cheese before they could serve meals from 19h00. You need to get in early if you haven’t booked…
Le Welsh is supposedly a Flemish speciality – basically a version of Welsh rarebit using Flemish beer, Maroilles cheese and just about anything else you want in it. More like fondue with floating toast… and frites. My carbonnade (beef stew with beer) contained about half a cow, Then I found the other half lurking under the salad. A very friendly and accommodating restaurant.
A much-needed walk across the city centre saw us back at Lille Europe for just after 20h00, and home at 23h00.
I don’t care how subjective the impression may be: French cities have a charm and style that is simply missing from most in the UK. And the people still know how to dress properly for winter, too.
A regular reader – it seems there are such creatures lurking out there – observed that there hasn’t been much “living well” (as in the strap-line), here for a while. (“Too much heavy politics”…)
I pointed out that living life well is not always the same as “the good life”. Epicureans don’t have a monopoly: it is possible to be a Sceptic, or even a Stoic and still “live life well”. All depends on your expectations…
In recent times, the situation in my home country has been such that trying to live well has indeed involved a significant degree of political and cultural soul-searching. But that’s all part of it: I’m not convinced that living in cossetted but mindless luxury really is “living well” in any case. Trying to face life’s tribulations in a reflective, intelligent manner is surely part of it too.
Even though my interpretation of sprezzatura goes well beyond the original, I would argue that beneath the apparently effortless elegance of a certain way in which some Italian men dress lies rather more thought and even soul-searching, not to mention a willingness to subvert the norms, than is at first apparent. In other words, it means being original and authentic, taking the best of convention, but to bending it to your own authentic self. All I’m doing is taking that idea beyond clothing…
But it’s true, we shouldn’t neglect the more material aspects of life. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that.
Which is all a rather long preamble to a deliberately trivial post.
Microsoft is ceasing security support for Windows 7 in January next year; despite several attempts, my old machine resolutely refused to install the free upgrades to Windows 10 that were offered earlier this year – and so the only alternative gradually narrowed down to the purchase of a new machine. Despite some concerns over the sustainability of such a move purely on software grounds, this has now been done. I need a desktop computer because I undertake quite a lot of design work for my published articles and personal interests, which is much less easily done on a portable device. But I don’t see why even a relatively functional activity like using a computer shouldn’t make its own contribution to a generally well-lived life.
The purchase prompted a major re-organisation and repaint of the multipurpose room where I do my work. Computer design has advanced in huge steps in recent years, no doubt driven by Apple, but now extending to more affordable machines like the excellent all-in-one HP model just purchased.
I first used computers in the early 1980’s, and even then, I thought that the techie guys had missed a trick when it came to wrapping their amazing goodies in something better than a boring black box. Here’s a reminder of the way we were:
Forty years on, and they finally seem to have realised that for many people, awesome microprocessors aren’t enough…
There’s no doubt that writing in a light, bright environment on an aesthetically pleasing device is materially a vastly better experience, particularly in these short, dark, dog-days of the year. It has more than repaid the effort (and expenditure) required. Sometimes, progress is real.
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.
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.