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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
Below: a short photo-study of Bern’s shop windows…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ratherradical 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…
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 evendesirable 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…
Britain’s popular image of itself has always been so intimately connected with its past that it has always struggled with the concept of Modern. Even when the ripples of the Bauhaus belatedly hit these shores, those buildings that emerged in that style were largely built using traditional techniques, and failed to adopt the forward-looking philosophy that it represented.
The Brutalist experience of the 1960s and 1970s hardly endeared modern architecture to popular opinion either – and the interventions of Prince Charles and others caused a definitive move back towards pseudo-traditional architecture across the country. While modern design has since enjoyed something of a re-birth of interest, as always, bulk developers responded slowly to changing tastes, and we have been left with a four-decade legacy of pastiche, a mish-mash of superficial, confused historic references only made worse by the pressures to build both at higher densities and to accommodate high car ownership.
The effect, far from enhancing the country’s traditions, has been to blight every place it touched with a sprawl of cloned, characterless, flimsy, disneyesque fake-heritage. And its effect is not only visual: by creating a imagined past, one effectively distorts the population’s sense of rootedness in its real past: a toothless re-engineering of a false arcadia that only devalues the real thing.
There is plenty of good modern architecture in Britain; it is just not generally accessible to the public. But things are slowly changing again, and the bulk developers are gradually realising that the public is more open than hitherto, to a type of contemporary design that takes its very human inspiration from experiences particularly in The Netherlands and Scandinavia, to create modern environments that are human in scale and still respect their heritage settings. I would go further, and suggest that it is far more respectful to genuine history not to imitate it badly, but to have the courage to build something ‘of its time’ in the way all those historic buildings were in their day.
I recently visited an excellent test-case of this theory. In the search for inspiration for the large development pending in my own small, historic town, I visited The Avenue in Saffron Walden. SW is a very attractive East Anglian town in north Essex, about 25km south of Cambridge. It has a fine collection of medieval buildings and an extensive conservation area. Into this, Pollard Thomas Edwards architects inserted an imaginative development of 75 homes, on a mature site in the south of the town. They chose to produce a range of apartments, terraced and detached housing and sheltered housing that is contemporary while strongly echoing the local vernacular. It won an RIBA regional prize in 2016.
The architects have made great use of the avenue of mature lime trees on the site to provide a public path through the development, while grouping many of the houses round courtyards that diminish the dominance of road vehicles within the setting. The buildings are credibly eco-sensitive and have provided a popular new residential district which even this self-avowedly traditionalist town has welcomed openly. A short film about the development can be seen on the architect’s website here.
The clever use of standardised components in a variety or permutations reduced costs, while not compromising the observed individuality and distinctiveness of the buildings. Walking through the development, one gains a sense of continuity with the ancient town around, and a strong sense that a characterful ‘place’ has been successfully created – the lack of which is often a criticism levelled at modern designs.
If such a development can work in a place like Saffron Walden, I don’t see why it shouldn’t work anywhere – and one is left with a strong sense that this is an architectural intervention that will stand the test of time, to become an integral part of the town’s evolution and heritage, unlike the pastiche shoe-boxes that remain developers’ more standard fare. It would be great to see this kind of imaginative thinking being used more widely in Britain. It might even start to persuade the general population that modern design is not inevitably terrible.
I’ve just ‘treated’ myself to this year’s Lacoste polo shirt. I buy one each year, and never one to neglect good value, I always buy from the outlet shop which I’m fortunate to have five miles down the road. The outrageous for the merely pricey; last year’s colours, but who cares?
I like this item because the colours are much more appealing than the dull navy-blues, maroons and taupes that one finds in British shops. I don’t know how they do it, but the French seem to have an eye for just the right shades. These polos are 100% cotton, they last well, too, and for me are a nod to a certain kind of Euro-chic that brings back memories of happy times – for they seem to be as close as continental men come to a summer uniform. It’s the only item of outwardly-branded clothing that I will wear.
But what they don’t do on the continent, it seems, is make a social statement, which is the main purpose of wearing brands in Britain. I haven’t come across anywhere else where using the ‘right’ brand supposedly makes you a superior person – or where a certain sector of society has needed to adopt certain brands (think Burberry) as a counter-statement. While there is definitely respect for quality, I just don’t get the impression that the continentals attach social status or exclusivity to them in the way the British do. What we are seeing here is yet another expression of Britain’s still class-bound society, that just doesn’t seem to exist in quite the same way elsewhere in Europe.
One might argue that it doesn’t matter too much when it comes to a polo shirt. But it seems there is nothing that the British will not misappropriate in order to make a class statement. The latest is eco-credentials. I have got into the habit of buying Enki magazine, a new-ish interiors thing, which is full of floaty, scandi-blond cool flaunting the ultra-eco-chic that is definitely to-die-for – with the death in question coming to the bank account of anyone who isn’t a fully-subscribed member of The One Percent. It portrays a very appealing lifestyle, with a generous side-helping of clear conscience, flaunts products gorgeous in every way except the price tag.
What’s more, a planning application has just gone in to build such a property in the grounds of the large house next door. I’ll be excited to see it go up (they are nice people who are building it), should it survive local conservatism and Britain’s sclerotic planning process. What bothers me about this is not the ideal (let alone the aesthetic, which really is lovely) – but the fact that sustainability is being turned into just another ultra-expensive fashion accessory for the very privileged.
A week ago, I sat opposite regional executives of the national conglomerate that is going to build a new housing development on the edge of our historic town. Given that it was forced upon us, we are trying to ensure that it is as positive a thing as possible. We presented them with a vision for an eco-friendly, contemporary-styled new quarter for the town, complete with ideas for renewable energy, water recycling, passive solar heating and reduced car use. I hope I’m wrong, but the expressions on their faces suggested that we are not going to get it.
So we see a situation where the wealthy can blow vast budgets (as several have in this neighbourhood recently) buying the latest in earth-friendliness, but when it comes to providing the same for the mere mortals who buy mass-produced housing, what is on offer is the same boring, resource hungry boxes, where the nearest thing to sustainability is a power lead to the garage to allow the owner-to retro-fit a charging point for an electric car if they wish, before they drive out and add to the local congestion. At the end of the day, it seems the bonuses of the executives of such companies trump the need to address the green agenda on a mass (and hence more cost-effective) basis.
And so something that ought now to be delivered as an essential to the whole population has become a cachet-statement for the small elite who can afford domestic geothermal heating systems and smart energy management tech in their minimalist weekend homes in Suffolk. I wouldn’t mind a bet that some of those executive bonuses in the construction industry are being used to install just such systems in their own homes.
Yet again deeply embedded British social attitudes conspire to maintain not only material but also attitudinal differences between the haves and the have nots, even when it comes to something that should be as egalitarian and universal as the green agenda. Unfortunately, despite the easy-living ethos of Enki, this is morality for the very wealthy.
Sprezzatura is all about the good things in life – of which I consider green living to be one. But its aspiration is democratic. This kind of elitism it most certainly does not support, and I’m heartily tired of the way our society misuses such things as statements of social superiority. For all our protestations of equality, this is still a nation deeply divided not only by its £2000 boiling-water taps – but more profoundly by the snobbery that misappropriates them.
And yes, I know 100% cotton polo shirts are ecologically-dubious too…
There’s nowt like a bit o’ hardship to make you appreciate the good life… which, as I’ve written before is, in a way, where Sprezzaturacame from. When your back is against the wall, it certainly does make life’s more pleasant experiences seem all the sweeter, even if (or perhaps because) they may presently be unattainable.
England’s North was built on such prospects – though it’s of course debatable whether shares in muck and brass were distributed as fairly as they should have been. Our first stop outside Leeds was Saltaire, a short train-ride away. Now a World Heritage Site, Titus Salt’s model village is one of Britain’s better-known examples of Victorian philanthropy: appalled by the general living conditions of the time, the wealthy mill-owner built a residential quarter for the thousands who worked in his immense premises next-door.
It is difficult to imagine how the neat grid of stone cottages was received by those who lived in them; much is made of Salt’s munificence – but I found myself mulling the contradiction set up by the knowledge that for many in Victorian times, the most basic elements of a decent life were almost completely at the discretion of private individuals – who in many cases did not care as much as Salt apparently did. But with the improved conditions came a dictated, morally-upright way of life (down to the number of baths one was required to take). Salt himself lived in considerable grandeur, with a private entrance to the mill. The work for the rest was still hard; egalitarianism, this was not.
There is also an irony, however, in that the Trades Unions which were a response to Victorian conditions would presumably have been quite happy to see Salt deposed from the position in which he was able to administer to his flock. Would that have been a victory? I think in the long run, people’s wellbeing should not rest on the discretion of more powerful others, and listening to the views of certain political figures even today, it is not clear that such lessons have been learned even now.
But we should still be careful not to cut off our noses to spite our faces.
Saltaire today is a slightly strange assemblage of Italianate and other buildings somehow rather too grand for their rural setting. It works, but still feels somewhat contrived. The vast mill itself is now a combination of business units, apartments, shops and a gallery largely devoted to the works of local artist David Hockney. His ‘The Arrival of Spring’ series, drawn on iPad and turned into large prints was an interesting and likeable expression of the creative potential of digital media.
Much of the nearby town seems contentedly inhabited, and there are a number of the chi-chi galleries, craft shops and cafes that tend to cluster in such places. Nowadays, it’s the strictures of listed building and World Heritage status that are the overlord. It’s all quite pleasant, if a little self-conscious.
We moved on further up the Aire valley, to Keighley and thence by Worth Valley steam train to Haworth, another famous location that majors on high Victorian drama. When it comes to dour Victorian novels, I very rapidly find that a little is too much, but the home of the Brontë sisters is picturesque – another place that I hadn’t visited for many years. All along the valley, the harshness of the industrial decline that rather horrified me when I first visited as a child is being mellowed as buildings are re-purposed and the profuse greenery returns. Some may yearn for the days of heavy industry, but in my eyes the removal of so much polluting harshness is a (qualified) good thing.
Haworth too is rather overdosing on Victorian sentimentalism these days – nearly every shop seems to be some form of nostalgia-laden giftware emporium. But again, I suppose one shouldn’t scoff – they are, in the end, a means for locals in an area that has seen its share of hardship, to make a living from the million visitors it receives each year… In general though, I have many reservations about the still-strong tendency in this country, to wallow so heavily in the past. We all know where that world-view has led, which may only restrict opportunities in the future…
The third stage of the trip was by bus over the moors to Hebden Bridge. The rather cringe-worthily-named ‘Brontë Bus’ turned out actually to be bright and modern, with USB sockets and satellite tracking, and it was interesting to do the circuits of the distinctly non-tourist parts of the area – many of which do look much better cared-for than last time I visited. I suspect that there is a fair amount of commuting to Leeds and Manchester now taking place.
That is certainly true of Hebden Bridge, which we reached after a pleasant bus-borne amble over the moors. This small town of 4500 has become famous as the ‘least cloned town in Britain’. Again it is picturesque, helped (when not being hindered by flooding) by its dramatic location deep in the valley of the Calder. The Rochdale Canal runs through, and the Pennine Way long-distance footpath is nearby, both of which no doubt feed tourism.
But the town’s main claim is the assertive localism of its residents, many of whom are creative types who came here in the seventies when property was cheap, and inadvertently turned the place into a kind of eco-mecca and focal point for the LGBT community.
The town centre has been sympathetically restored, while the presence of both an independent cinema and a highly successful arts venue are somewhat unexpected. Swanky interiors shops suggest that there is money around. Lessons can be learned for my own small town in Essex, which is of a similar size and which equally needs to seize the initiative for its own destiny at a time when the pressures of large-scale commercialism are taking their toll.
A different kind of enlightenment from Saltaire? Certainly: this is one that is self-directed, even if the actual mechanisms by which Hebden has come to thrive are not entirely clear, intentional or controllable.
Maybe that is the secret of a genuinely good life?
The silence was noticeable. Several times, when I told people we were taking a holiday in Leeds, the response was slow coming. “Well, I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time… ”
We, however, were reasonably confident in expecting more from the city at the heart of Britain’s fourth-largest conurbation. We have been working our way through visits to all of the country’s big cities, to see what these places, still often despised in popular opinion, are really like today after several decades of urban renewal. In only one case were we disappointed – and Leeds was the last big place on the list. I think it is fair to say that after several decades in the doldrums, Britain’s city centres are now generally worthy of the nation’s civic pride.
It was about 25 years since I had last visited Leeds, briefly, for a friend’s wedding, so I had few recollections of the city – but I knew that it had stolen a march even on Manchester in being quick out of the blocks of urban renewal. Even some of the new waterside developments are nearing thirty years old. It is now the largest financial and legal centre in England, outside London. Its high productivity has generated income whose consequences have had time to bed in, and have had a lasting effect on the city. There is still quite a lot to do when it comes to the areas just outside the city centre – but we observed the early stages in the creation of a new city park, alongside which, in a decade or so, will eventually rise the new High Speed 2 rail station, thus extending the already impressive new districts to the south of the River Aire.
For once, I had been organised, and booked our visit several months in advance. As a result, we had a room in a 42 The Calls Hotel, an early conversion of a grain warehouse into an attractive hotel, even if its early-nineties decor is now in need of a lift (forthcoming, we gather). A room upgrade saw us installed with a river view, and the roof trusses and machinery of the former hoists to look up at in bed each evening. The rest of the building is an attractive blend of Victorian beams and pillars and modern interventions.
The area around the former wharves on the River Aire is now redolent of similar dockland-style schemes across the country, but no less interesting for that. The backstreets just to the north seem to be doing a good impression of Shoreditch or Hoxton in London, with many creative businesses and bearded types in evidence… Edgy – but just sufficiently so.
In fact, that is a good summary of the rest of the city, which has cleaned and restored many of its fine Victorian buildings, while making some appealing modern interventions and reinterpretations. The city has not been ‘over-cleaned’ – or perhaps the process has now been going on for long enough that the patina of reality is re-settling. Some rejuvenated places can feel just too pristine…
Much of the centre has been pedestrianised, with a number of new arcades being added to the very fine Victorian ones for which the city is known. As a retail centre, it now ranks with the best in the country, having Harvey Nichols as well as a large new ‘statement’ John Lewis. These have been the anchors around which many lesser known brands and a fair number of independents have clustered.
The city centre is a pleasant place to walk around, though I gather Friday evenings can still be “interesting”… There is an ornate Victorian indoor market, while the beautiful Corn Exchange now hosts a selection of esoteric independents.
Leeds has a lot to offer culturally too, with Opera North being homed here, as well as the Yorkshire Playhouse repertory theatre. Unfortunately, there was a lull in the programme during the days of our stay. The visual arts are perhaps slightly less well represented; the city Art Gallery is not on the scale of that in Manchester or Birmingham, though it does hold a significant collection of 20th Century art. Unfortunately this too was largely closed in preparation for the forthcoming Yorkshire Sculpture Festival – as was the Tetley Contemporary Arts Centre. Sculpture is perhaps the one visual art that bucks the trend: West Yorkshire has become something of a centre for it, on the back of the area’s associations with Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (in nearby Wakefield), together with the well-regarded Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
We still find that many British towns and cities’ Achilles’ Heel is their eateries. Leeds does have Michelin starred restaurants – but for more ordinary mortals, the choice seems to be very largely restricted to the usual chain suspects. We try to escape these wherever we can. On our first night, we found a well-reviewed Italian not far from our hotel in another nicely-restored warehouse near the river. Unfortunately, the food was ordinary to say the least; we are not fastidious, but we do know our Italian food, and we can do better than this at home. More indicative, if this is considered locally to be outstanding, then expectations cannot be very high… Much renovation of British cities has found inspiration from the continent – and while there are now some very pleasing public spaces and architecture, it is a shame that the regular gastronomic offerings still mostly don’t come near our experiences of a place, for example, like Lille – let alone those further south.
We were able to see most of central Leeds in a day – it is fairly compact and easily walkable. The redeveloped areas along the river are extensive and attractive, though the main museum offering – the national Royal Armouries Museum was not really our cup of tea. Interesting building though.
On our second day, we travelled out of the city to some of the smaller places nearby – of which more another time.
As expected, Leeds proved to be a very successful choice for a short city break. It has a big-city feel without being overwhelming, and has made very successful use of its assets to emerge as another fine British city, whatever lagging public opinion might still be thinking. We’ll be back.