Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Because we’re all worth it…

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…

Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria


Is there any difference between using cheddar cheese or parmesan with Italian food? It is hard to say no – though the reasons why are complex and may be seen as a matter of culture or pretension as well as practicality. ‘Authenticity’ might have something to do with it – but even this can be read in several ways.

Next: is it better to have a block of cheese rather than a tub of ready-grated powder? Once again, it is hard to disagree on taste (those in the know will realise that the ready-grated dust often comes machine-crushed from the rind-ends and rejects, possibly not even parmesan at all…) – but being “in the know” is as much a social as gastronomic position… And is it better for that block to be freshly cut from a round by a cheesemonger, than shrink-wrapped from a supermarket? Experience says yes again (and once you know what happens in the packaging process, it is no surprise…). At each stage, as we refine our sensitivity, it is difficult to argue against raising our game, though it may come at increased cost. A matter of self-evident freshness and flavour it may be, but that is not necessarily enough to deflect potential accusations of food snobbery…

Those who never make such journeys will never know that, once tried, something like this becomes quite literally a simple matter of fact – but it still may not be enough to stop them from condemning others for discerning in ways that they do not consider important.

What applies to cheese can apply to anything else where degrees of discernment are possible – and with it, inevitably, come the social inferences. Those who discern will, in some places be attacked for their elitism or condescension. In others, evident good judgement may be more a matter for admiration and respect. In some places such views may be associated with social pretension – but in others it might not even enter the equation. As well as individual cases, this polarisation can also been seen in wider public opinion: the art gallery built a few years ago in my local town was widely criticised as a “waste of money”, rather than being welcomed as a rare opportunity to bring something special to the local community.

The more prevalent status-seeking is, the greater is the risk of perceived snobbery, because anything that raises one’s game risks being seen as socially pretentious even if it is not intended that way. As a Briton, I have repeatedly noticed the comparatively low level of preoccupation with social class that seems to prevail in certain other European countries that I know well, compared with my own where it seems such issues are never far beneath the surface. There seems to be more acceptance of people’s right and ability to express their own taste, and less assumption that doing so is simply an exercise in social badging.

It can be seen in subliminal national habits: for example, emphases in advertising are not the same everywhere. In some places, products are promoted on their social cachet, and in others more on their aesthetic desirability. Claims of exclusivity, showing off or ‘getting ahead’ seem to feature less strongly in marketing in some countries I know, than others. In some, shop staff seem more willing than elsewhere to venture personal opinions – which is perhaps easier if you are commenting on the item rather than the buyer. In the UK, going into the ‘wrong’ shop, restaurant or hotel can still risk being a socially intimidating, even humiliating, experience…

The implications of this are significant, and amount to how much of one’s life one is prepared to have dominated by the need for external approval. Where great, this suggests to me a life that is insufficiently rich in its own experiences and insights to be self-justifying – and it may explain the railing against those who do better: inverted snobbery at work again.

To buck social approval can require strength of mind – and a knowledge of what to do instead. It is a matter of having a “growth mindset” – of being motivated to explore one’s own horizons rather than yielding to the limitations of herd rule. It can be a path to personal independence through increasing complexity of understanding, and thereby informed judgement. The fear of criticism diminishes as confidence grows, though all but the most determined will probably concede that there are probably limits beyond which it would still be hard to go. Many British men still have ‘issues’ with wearing pink – and in many cases, dressing with visible care at all. Yet ultimately, what marks those who scrub up perfectly well but mostly do not bother, is not the visual effect but the personal ease with which it is carried. What characterful people have in common is the confidence to do (and be) their own thing.

The real journey to discernment is neither pretentious nor self-indulgent – the two criticisms often levelled at people who undertake it. It is not about foot-stamping when we cannot have ‘the best’. Rather, it is about informed decisions when compromise is necessary – but not accepting it when it is not. It is an earnest desire to know, to live life to the full, to do things well – and to learn to appreciate such good things as come our way. It is about taking the trouble humbly to do nice things for others too, not just trying to impress them. It is as much about avoiding poor choices as making nit-picking ones.

A risk is that the more one discerns, the more intolerant and dissatisfied one can become – but it is also possible to see discernment as a form of mindfulness, even gratitude for being alive, since it involves savouring experiences rather than taking them for granted, knowing and appreciating their real nature rather than worrying about the social consequences. The only alternative is to live devoid of such rewarding experiences. They can be found, after all, in the most unlikely places, not just the currently fashionable ones, because it is ultimately more about how than what we like.

This is not something that British culture at any level encourages us to do: to yield to the innocent appreciation of sensual pleasure, quality and self-affirmation. Sadly, we do not educate for this: even school lessons about food are “Food Technology” – focused on careers, business and money-making, rather than the simple enjoyment of an essential that would be more beneficial to more people. I wonder how many parents educate their children in such things. The French for one, do (or did) it differently…

The same philosophy can extend to growing our personal skills, qualities and behaviours – something else that distinguishes self-developers from those seeking social validation, where only the outward appearance and marketability matter. The acid test is what people do when no one else is looking – for one’s quality of life does not require any audience but oneself…

Achieving such complexity does require effort – but the rewards are proportionate. This is why some will indeed make considerable efforts for a piece of fresh cheese, a certain cloth, specific music or company, when others may not. It is why they may be concerned with issues of authenticity and the minutiae of fine distinctions. It is why their language may appear obscure, and sometimes even intolerant. It is why they may choose sunglasses that others then misjudge.

Sadly, misunderstanding seems widespread. The Good Life seems to be regarded as a matter of wealth and prestige. Good things are treated as the preserve of the privileged or greedy rather than a valid and pleasurable part of any life. Treating life as an economic rather than creative experience is partly to blame.

Again, this does not seem the same everywhere: it is not only the aristocratic French who care about good wine or food, not only affluent Italians who dress well. Here, by contrast, it is more usual to encounter murmured, self-deprecating disclaimers about a lack of knowledge of the niceties. Stodgy conformity trumping individual character.

Those other countries seem to have greater consensus about what makes for a good life – and the acceptance that it is, at least in theory, generally desirable. This is only possible when it is not treated as a social marker. This often seems painfully different in the U.K., where such preoccupations are often treated with scepticism or ascribed to social cliques.

The resultant “not for the likes of us” thinking can become self-fulfilling. Given the misperceptions about the function of good quality, it is perhaps not surprising that Britain has relatively few of the desirable product-lines that come from France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Scandinavia. Such high-quality British brands as do exist – from Jaguar to Burberry – almost always come with indelible aristocratic associations – but then, almost anything of quality sold in Britain normally comes with at least a faint whiff of social superiority attached – while the rest settle for indiscriminate ‘convenience’ as a way of avoiding harder choices.

The truth is, much of the British population remains eternally confused by a system where every action potentially has social before aesthetic connotations. In such a minefield, where any overt decision potentially entails disapproval from one quarter or another, it’s just easier not to bother…

It is, however, easy for others to fill such vacuums – most obviously commercial operations, for whom genuine diversity presents a supply problem. Taste is much more marketing-led that is often thought, and it is all too easy to steer the thoughts and behaviour of compliant people who have few strong ideas of their own.

This is where the silent oppression of the majority comes most forcefully into play. The collective failure of assertiveness to insist on high standards and reject low, makes it all the more likely that those who do try do differently will be ignored. The more homogenous society becomes, the more they will both stand out, and perhaps attract disapproval or misunderstanding. In a society where social judgement comes first, producers may even provoke such comparisons: it is easier to appeal to the market’s snobbery than its discernment.

Yet those who do make the journey may come to realise that social display and aesthetic value are not as interwoven as they can seem: access to quality is not always a matter of (high) cost: you can be discerning about potatoes (and the consequences of failure to do so are instantly noticeable…). Truly good eating is probably more dependent on simple, good ingredients than complex recipes. The ingredients give the authentic sensory experience; while they can certainly delight the eye, fancy dishes are more often about display. The real enemy, however, is once again the (overpriced) taste-free processed ‘convenience’ food that, judging from what one sees at the checkouts, many still accept as their lot. As with food, so with much else; the worst deceit of all is mass-produced items masquerading as artisan products – an increasingly common deception into which we might read a lot.

Judgement of good quality depends on setting aside social pressure; those who seek status-display often fail to see this – there are more than enough examples of grotesque taste to show that wealth does not buy good judgement. The person who strives even occasionally to attain something above their norm will perhaps appreciate it more than one who takes “the best” utterly for granted. ‘Luxury’ – inasmuch as it is a desirable quality – is a relative, sensory experience, and having excess of it only brings accustomisation and complacency.

I believe that it is worth striving to fill one’s life with good experiences. Seeking the good in every aspect of daily life need be neither showy nor greedy – but what it does do is remind us of the value of each day. Life can be difficult enough for it hardly to be sinful to celebrate and take pleasure in its good side. Things of substance tend to bring longer-lasting satisfaction that those that are insubstantial and shoddy. Carefully chosen things are more likely to endure, are less likely to bring disappointment or boredom, and can lastingly shine back to us the identity and story of our own lives.

Ignoring this suppresses the quality of life through the rejection of pleasurable things because of their social connotations but equally, the assumption that Quality of Life is something that can be bought, rather than achieved through personal growth. Instead of despising or sniping at others, it might be better to claim a slice of the action for ourselves. Every life is a potential work of art; what each needs is a good artist.

Elitism is often seen as an undesirable quality; certainly, its outward expression can be abrasive, divisive and insulting. Material display is often little more than a show of greed. It seems a particularly sore point in mainstream Britain, though this is not so surprising when there still exists an elite that keeps many of this nation’s best things to itself, with an unspoken code to exclude the rest. Those who are, or who aspire to be, part of it can elicit sharp disapproval. Most people do not spend their time openly sneering; they are more likely to draw private conclusions – and continue to self-exclude. This kind of self-deprecation only makes it all the easier for real elite to prevail: their existence relies on the collusion of those who are excluded to perpetuate it. The only way to combat it to refuse to be excluded; the thing to question is not whether good things exist, but whether they necessarily can only belong to a minority.

There remains, however, a dilemma for those on the receiving end of inverted snobbery or minority discrimination: should they ignore it, or capitulate? In the end, it is probably a non-issue: if you have learned deep appreciation, it is not something you will easily give up. There is no other course than to take the hit in the name of the democratic rights of all minorities.

I strongly disapprove of both social elitism and plebianism – but I have a great deal of sympathy with learning personal aesthetic discernment, which has the potential to enrich any life that allows it. We can all go on the parmesan journey, even if only occasionally. Aesthetic self-fulfilment is much less a matter of money than this Affluenza-riddled country seems to think. It can be found in something as simple as perfectly ripe fruit or a beautiful sunset. It can be found in our own qualities, not just in the things we buy.

It should not be an elite, minority preoccupation.

Food, Opinion & Thought

It’s a scoop!

“I thought you were a kept man!” my musical friend teased, at the news of my end-of-year workload. Well, I suppose in some ways I am, given that it is my wife who has the more successful career and who still works full time, albeit now remotely from home.

After a full-on career of my own, over more than three decades, it is a frustrating fact that the experiences of the past five years seem to have left me with limits to amount I can take on – not that I don’t keep trying…

But I have inadvertently had the opportunity to learn an important lesson, as discussed in a previous post: the capacity of work to rob you of many of life’s other experiences. Working only part-time, I have discovered what happens when you simply have sufficient time to live appreciatively: when one is no longer forced to rush from one end of the day to the other, one can savour each experience more fully. Were it not for the periods when the dark clouds still descend, it is a big improvement.

This, I think, is what the much-discussed Mindfulness is really about – the ability to appreciate time as it unfolds, rather than being constantly engaged in the fuzzy anticipation of what will happen next, which has the propensity to make you less aware of what is actually happening now. It is certainly easier done when you are not constantly rushing from pillar to post.

Time can be a luxury in itself, and one that I have come to appreciate greatly. I’m well aware that this could easily slip over into mere self-indulgence, hence work and other commitments definitely have their place in order to keep the general perspective outward-looking – but as for the balance, then maybe there is still something to be learned more generally.

It may seem a large leap from such thoughts to the simple matter of serving coffee – but it is precisely in such details that the benefits can be found. We are now in the fortunate position of being able to have our mid-morning break together – and this has come to mean a cappuccino made on our trusty old Gaggia and drunk from proper china cups rather than a chipped mug or disposable paper carton. It is possible to source decent coffee easily in the UK now – we tend to rely on Illy.

I think ritual is an important part of marking life’s rhythm, and our morning cappuccino, taken whenever possible outside, is a valuable moment in the day. I’ve had time to work on my barista technique – a minor art in its own right – and most days a decent frothy coffee results, no chocolate powder or other pollutants allowed. Just a lovely, aromatic crema, followed by that big swoosh of frothed milk that leaves a beautiful tan-coloured swirl on the top. Not bad, given that it isn’t possible to be sitting at a café in Rome right now…

There was one thing that needed improvement. I used to rely on a cheap plastic scoop for moving the ground coffee around – but this split and snapped ages ago. I then fell back on a general kitchen measure, which just about did the job – at the cost of being too shallow and too wide for the coffee machine head. As a result, it often left a liberal heap of coffee on the worktop.

I have finally got round to addressing this matter of global significance. A brief online search turned up a decent stainless-steel scoop from Melitta, the German coffee brand. It only cost a few quid, turned up in a couple of days – and has made a pleasing difference. Not only does the coffee go where it is meant to, but the item is reasonably aesthetic, has a pleasing weight and does its job much more precisely than the old one.

This is hardly going to solve the major problems of the world, but in a small way, it has made a significant improvement to our daily ritual. As any craftsman knows, tools are important; not only for the job they do, but as items of sensory satisfaction, even beauty, in their own right. There is much gentle, mindful pleasure to be had from using good ones, that poorly designed ones rarely match. It was not a matter of anything other than a minor effort, minimal expense and just a little time. I wonder how many other daily irritations we tend to put up with, particularly when time-pressured, where just a little more ‘room’ to tackle them could make a useful difference. It’s not only the big things in life that matter…

Food, Travel

Baby Biarritz?

After the somewhat underwhelming experience of Nottingham, we were still feeling the urge to be out and about and indulging in a little café life. So, on the spur of the moment, we hit the road last weekend and found it in…. Felixstowe.

Felixstowe is not a place you go to by accident; what’s more, its main reputation as the U.K.’s principal deep-sea container port quite possibly makes it not the kind of place you would expect to go to on purpose either. I had passed quickly through once a number of years ago – but more recently, my hairdresser, who is one of the cooler men I know, had commended it. Coming from a natty dresser who likes a glass of something chilled with his jazz, there had to be a reason why…

And so we discovered Baby Biarritz. Well, perhaps that’s a bit optimistic; Baby Bournemouth more like. I think it was the large villas on the clifftop that put both resorts in mind. It has the same restrained, slightly faded charm of the more tasteful better-known seaside resorts, today infused with a gentle hint of continent.

A little research revealed that Felixstowe indeed had form; it developed as an upmarket Edwardian coastal spa town complete with a steamer service from London – and thus it retains a legacy of rather grand old villas that have mostly withstood the redevelopment pressures of the larger resorts. Biarritz is known as the also-slightly-faded seaside hang-out of deposed European aristocracy: so much more discrete than Saint Tropez… Felixstowe had Wallis Simpson, who lay low here for some months in 1936 in a mansion she considered far too small, awaiting the divorce that would allow her to marry the abdicating Edward VIII. And in 1891, Empress Augusta Viktoria of Germany spent most of the summer here, in between visiting her mother-in-law the Queen in London. I said it had form…

Based on my first visit’s impressions, we had not expected to do more than cruise through on the way somewhere more interesting. But in the event, we felt the urge to park up and look closer. I find myself increasingly attracted to the laid-back atmosphere of the coast; someone once said that it is the only place where the British ever even marginally relax their buttoned-upness. You find slightly less prim, more exotic planting, a greater prevalence of picture windows and balconies than elsewhere – and despite the general coolness of the climate, the coastal light and vistas do lend something to this most understated of countries… But I am still repelled by typical kiss-me-quick bucket-and-spadeness, much preferring the style of French and Italian resorts. We loved Viareggio when we visited – and I have fond memories of Dieppe on the Cote d’Opale – whose northern French climate is not so markedly better than ours. But what they do with their resorts most definitely is…

In Felixstowe’s case, it has the distinct advantage of being the only East Anglian resort to face south. Combined with a sloping cliff that relieves it of the flatness of most of its neighbours, it has a microclimate that the Edwardians exploited to create some appealing coastal gardens, recently restored. On a distinctly cool early August day, it was enough to lend a warmth that could have been somewhere distinctly more balmy…

British seaside resorts have had a rough half-century – ever since the Brits discovered they could go to Spain. But there are signs that some are rising to the challenge, no doubt helped this year by the travel restrictions. While there is not much we can do about the climate except wait for global warming, there are signs that Felixstowe at least is raising its game. Perhaps the very fact that it lies below the radar of the masses helps, as no doubt does the presence a little further up the coast of the much more chichi Suffolk towns of Aldeburgh and Southwold. Unlike those, however, which are very much pebbles, fishing boats and hearty doses of Benjamin Britten with everything, Felixstowe has rather more of that faded Riviera feel; at least enough to make it worth the thirty-five-mile drive, bypassing the distinctly mixed delights of Clacton and Frinton on the way…

The container port at the mouth of the Orwell is dredged to 15 metres, which allows it to accommodate the largest container carriers in the world; it’s the eight busiest port in Europe and nearly half all UK containerised imports pass through it. Facing Rotterdam across the southern North Sea probably helps. As a result, it has excellent transport connections. The southern horizon is dominated by a dozen gantry cranes, which are impressive enough not to be the complete eyesore that one might expect. The coming and going of the huge ships, not to mention the passenger service from nearby Harwich to Hook of Holland, adds interest.

The town itself is a mixed bag of low-end chains but with some more interesting independents sprinkled in; it seems to be making efforts, as I said, to raise its game – the main street is well enough cared for compared with many of its peers. It does have the expected amusement arcades and other trashiness, but the north end of the town is a rather different matter, with the cliff gardens, and the more imposing villas. What’s more, some pleasing eateries have moved in, with more on the way, thus addressing one of the regular downsides of the British seaside experience. That, and a shipload of imported palm trees, made for a pleasing, escapist afternoon, all the more so for being unexpected.

Alba Chiara

The renowned East Anglian brewers Adnams have opened a brasserie on the sea front; another similar venture is due to open soon. But we opted for Alba Chiara, a surprisingly good Italian restaurant, also a new arrival, and set up in an appealing building that had seen a previous life as a chips and burger bar. We got the better deal: anywhere that makes its carbonara with guanciale and pecorino knows what it is doing; nicely seaside-y and without being overly themed, it is a pleasant spot with great sea views. Later, we discovered that the owners are indeed Italian and escapees from one of our favourite restaurants elsewhere in the region. Full marks.

Alba Chiara
Serious espresso at last…

The promenade is worth a stroll; the beach is partly sandy, and a definite rise in the quality of kiosks is visible – several were selling “gelato” from proper scoop-chillers; a big improvement on the traditional lolly-on-a-stick. And then, joy of joys, we found one that was selling Mövenpick ice-cream: quite a rarity anywhere in the U.K., let alone at a lesser-known small resort like this. At the south end of the town, Beach Street Felixstowe is another recent addition: a Camden-style collection of independent traders, all housed in redundant shipping containers. We didn’t get far enough to check this in person, but it looks intriguing.

We rounded the afternoon off with a prowl around some of the cliff-top residential streets: a mix of villa and apartment blocks, several which have been recently renovated and (later research showed) commanding quite steep figures… And a couple of newly built contemporary additions, with some attractive looking balconies.

It’s not unusual to overlook the attractions of one’s near-region. Daily life tends to get in the way of exploring as thoroughly as one should – particularly when prejudice gets in the way. In this case, it was a good decision to take the risk; some of my family roots are in Dorset, and Bournemouth has always been – climatically, topographically and architecturally – my benchmark for the British seaside. But now we know that we at least have Baby Bournemouth, if not Baby Biarritz, much closer at hand…


French for Veggies

Mushroom and chestnut bourgignon

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder if it will catch on in France.

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


4-5 small shallots per person

Handful of button chestnut mushrooms per person

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

4-6 small whole carrots per person

200mm fruity red wine

1 tbsp of plain flour

2-3 tbsp passata or less of tomato puree

150ml vegetable stock

1 clove garlic

Large pinch dried thyme

Salt and pepper

Olive oil

25g Butter


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

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

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

Add the shallots and continue to sauté.

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

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

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

Potato gratin

Heat oven to 180C.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

Lille in Winter

Lille Winter Fair in the Grand Place.

“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.

Place Louise de Bettignies

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…

Eurostar – St Pancras.

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…)

Bouquinistes in the Vieille Bourse

Méert was established in 1677 and the current shop dates from 1839. Charles de Gaulle’s favourite shop (He was a native of Lille).


Plenty of other chocolatiers on the Rue Esquermoise…

Ligne Roset…

Roche Bobois.

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.

Above and below: Notre Dame de la Treille. The West window is made of translucent sheets of marble.


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.

Place Louise de Bettignies – one of Lille’s more recent renovations.

Place des Oignons.

Winter cafe life.

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…

The Rue de Gand

Estaminet de Gand – traditional Flemish restaurant.

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.

Food, Travel

Beyond Schoggi

Schiesser, Basel

I am very partial to a grand continental café. A classic of the kind is the Cafe Romand in Lausanne (below), its unchanging parquet-floored, wood-panelled interior a place where old men still come to pass the afternoon with a paper and coffee, and grandes-dames take afternoon cakes. In the evenings it serves fondue in traditional ceramic caquelons. It is immensely popular, a local institution, even though it’s a youngster, dating only from 1951. I’ve been an occasional customer since the late ’80s, and it is one of those places that somehow move with the times without ever changing.

Cafe Romand, Lausanne

Then there is Schiesser, an institution in Basel dating from 1870, another darkly-panelled tea shop on the upper floor of the eponymous confisserie opposite the town hall. Proper black-and-white-dressed waiters still prevail here, and the heiẞe-schokolade most definitely comes not out of a Cadbury’s tin.

Elevenses by Schiesser

Swiss cuisine doesn’t have a particularly high profile abroad, partly perhaps because it, like the country itself, is so heterogeneous. The obvious features are fondue and – of course – cheese in general, together with the increasingly-known raclette and rösti. Like the country itself, the diet is a sometimes-perplexing mix of Germanic, French and Italian influences, which can crop up in disconcerting combinations. But there are also delicacies such as filets de perche, which have almost cult status on Lake Geneva. And we shouldn’t forget the fresh apricots and peaches, and the wine, even though it is something of an acquired taste, and not widely available elsewhere.

Food is done with the same care that the Swiss attach to most things – and they don’t forget the importance of the visual, either. Their food is tasty, and often cosmopolitan, but the thing that really stands out is that it is so enticingly presented.

Visiting food shops in Switzerland is a feast for the eyes even if you don’t purchase, and this is something else that to me gives the place a solid sense of well-being that is often lacking in Britain (and sometimes elsewhere). Sorry, but Greggs is just not the same. Somehow the Swiss manage to make their food outlets classy without being elitist, in a way that even their neighbours often fail to match – and that is saying something.

Britons might consider the approach quaint; there are still quite a few restaurants where waiting staff are traditionally formal, and even on the trains one still eats off crockery with proper cutlery. Old-fashioned, or simply maintaining high standards? There are plenty of street-food stalls of course, but the things that really appeal to me are the more solid outfits.

A much-missed attraction in London is the Swiss Centre in Leicester Square, which used to contain a Mövenpick Marché self-service restaurant in its basement – a bit like a culinary version of an IKEA marketplace, only much tastier. One could, for a while, imagine that one was in Bern or Zurich, and it was (presciently) where my wife and I went on our first date.

Mövenpick is a reputed Swiss brand, which covers restaurants, hotels and more. For me, its crowning glory is its ice cream, which unlike the company’s other offerings can be found scattered (thinly) across the U.K. I most recently came across it, bizarrely, on the menu of a pub in deepest Cambridgeshire. Recommended.

Even department stores and motorway service stations get in on the act as foodie destinations. While the up-market Globus might be expected to have a seriously sexy food hall, even the more mid-market Manor offers its own Marché. One proceeds with tray to various ‘stalls’, from which to mix and match salads, patisserie, fruit smoothies and more, or to have various dishes cooked while one waits. To top it off, the store in Basel has a great roof-top terrace, where one can park for a good while, looking out over the city.

Globus food hall

Manor 1
Manor Marché, Basel

Manor Marché, Basel

Rooftop terrace, Manor Marché, Basel.

But I suppose we must inevitably come to chocolate. Forget Nestlé. An up-coming company is Läderach – first founded in the 1960s and producing superb chocolate. While Britons at last seem to be learning a serious chocolate habit (for which, sincere thanks Hotel Chocolat) this is on a different level entirely, with comparable prices; good chocolate is not a cheap commodity, but then a small amount goes a long way. Once again, the Swiss elevate an everyday transaction to the level of serious luxe; it is also rather more grown-up than Hotel Chocolat’s sometimes-gimicky presentation. It is noticeable that this brand has been expanding vigorously in recent years, and has now spread to several other countries, though not yet the U.K. It is possible to order online, and they do seem gradually to be addressing their shipping costs.

Above and below: Läderach


I suppose it is possible to argue that presentation doesn’t make any difference to the product. But I think it does: if it is true that consumers are shifting their spending from goods to ‘experiences’, then presentation and quality of service are part of making the purchase of something into a feel-good experience. It is something that too many retailers in Britain seem not even to begin to understand. I might have been tempted to suggest that large chains simply aren’t capable of delivering such experiences – but the Swiss show that to be incorrect, too.

As I wrote in my previous post about Morges, Swiss streets seem to be little-harmed (as yet?) by the online shopping revolution, certainty compared with the free-fall being seen in the U.K. Maybe that is because they understand (or just care) more about these matters.

The proof of the theory is in the eating.


Wheely cheese

cheese 2

It is often the little things that lift daily life beyond the mundane, and as I’ve written many times eating well, for me, comes pretty high up in that. But doing so depends on being able to source good-quality produce, hopefully without a major trek from home. Good food is always worth the effort – but having it close at hand is hardly unwelcome…

I’m very fortunate that my small town still has a market every Thursday, whose charter dates back to the 13th Century. Within literally one minute’s walk of my front door, I can buy excellent fish, meat, bread, cheese and vegetables – and that is in addition to the local independent food store that we still have. Pleasingly, while the food on offer is diverse, the market itself still has its feet firmly on the ground.

One of the highlights for me is the cheese stall. Martijn Knap  is the owner of The Cheese Wheeler, a motorised Dutch cheese counter that can be found at a number of markets across the northern Home Counties in the course of a week. Martijn is a distinctive character, whose past life has included a stint in the Dutch National Ballet, various top-ranking shows on both sides of the Atlantic and restaurant ownership in London. He also runs a gym. But his best asset so far as I’m concerned is definitely his cheese stall.

This man has unintentionally done much to educate me in the appreciation of cheese, as he stocks many types that I had not encountered previously, from all over the U.K. and Europe. He chooses his suppliers carefully. I am now an afficiado of the various tommes – Savoie, Provence, Pyrenees and more, as well as Vacherin (only seasonally available), Munster and Epoisses, not to mention lesser-known (here) Dutch cheeses such as boerenkaas. Satisfyingly, like many foodstuffs, done properly there is a lot to know, which you will never pick up from a supermarket chiller-cabinet.

Martijn has a wide range of goat and sheep cheeses too, and we live in the knowledge that the raw materials for fondue or raclette are reliably available just round the corner on a weekly basis. Parmesan cut freshly from a round is so much better than shrink-wrapped supermarket offerings. Apparently, British supermarkets often receive the cracked cheeses cut and packaged, that no self-respecting cheese-aware Italian would even contemplate…

Sometimes there is excellent fresh mozzarella from a dairy in London, and occasionally even fresh ricotta. And around Christmas he also has a fantastic range of terrines and pates. I could go on, but I will start feeling hungry.

Predictably, I envy the cheese stalls in continental markets – but with this of all products buying is rather restricted when one is away, since they don’t exactly go well in hand luggage. All the more reason to appreciate little gems like Martijn’s stall when you are lucky enough to have them on your doorstep.


Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

Leeds by example

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.

Above and below: mixed modern and restored architecture on the Aire waterfront.


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.

Above and below: Leeds’ famous arcades – old and new – in the Victoria Quarter.


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.

The Corn Exchange

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.

Canal basin with the Royal Armouries Museum on the left.

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.

Food, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs


One perhaps might have expected Sprezzatura to be mourning the loss of Patisserie Valerie – but I can’t. It occurred to me that the company’s recent difficulties are symptomatic of the bigger issues swilling around in British civil life at present.

What started out in 1926 as a single, much-loved cafe founded by the eponymous Belgian émigrée spawned several other branches in London without losing too much of its historic character. I only visited once, but it was like walking off a London street straight into a small corner of northern France. But then it was taken over by an ‘entrepreneur’. Eventually a large share was sold to venture capitalists, and it was rolled out as a chain of some 200 outlets. It became a shadow of what it had been, little more than a themed pastiche of the original. As David Mitchell wrote in The Observer, like all chains, the original cafe’s identity became little more than a watered-down ‘front’ for yet another cash-conveyer for big business.

As I have bemoaned before, the same fate befell Costa Coffee a couple of decades ago. What had been characterful, family-run Italian coffee bars beamed down in London was acquired by Whitbread, and turned into the clone empire that we see today. To be fair, in both cases the quality of the product has not suffered too much, though I have always bemoaned the lack of alcohol in some of Valerie’s offerings: Black Forest gateau is just not the same without (expensive) kirsch. Costa’s coffee remains markedly better than its competitors, despite its susceptibility for the usual marketing-led seasonal gimmicks. (Drive-through Costa, on the other hand, is just too far removed from the real culture of coffee not to be an abomination).

The intangible character of both institutions, which played an essential if indefinable part in making them what they were, has been utterly obliterated beneath the disposable stage-dressing of the corporate shop-fit. As Mitchell says, the identity of chain outlets is essentially interchangeable; in aesthetic terms, there is nothing to stop a Valerie becoming a Pizza Hut next week and a McDonald’s the week after. It is all just window-dressing; the honest, unique character has gone forever, as have the eccentricities that corporate-land just doesn’t understand and can’t tolerate. With what’s left, Established 1926 is now close to being just another corporate lie.

It is perhaps no surprise, too, that with the growth of the organisation far beyond the original family business, it took on corporate individuals who turned out to be fully prepared to bankrupt it in pursuit of their own wealth. Large conglomerates rarely command the loyalty that begets the integrity needed to cultivate such business in the long term.

But how is this representative of the nation’s wider woes? It seems pretty generally accepted that Brexit was motivated by the disaffection of the ‘left-behind’ classes in their hollowed-out out provincial towns. The spread of Patisserie Valerie may have brought a little panache to such places, a shallow semblance of national cohesion and democratisation – but its likely and equally summary departure will leave behind yet more empty premises.

The real problem runs deeper than that, though: by their presence in such places, chains contributed to the siphoning-off of local wealth and its transfer to large corporations. And as with Starbucks before them, they may well have killed off local businesses which, while possibly not as glossy, at least had local roots, and ploughed their income back into their communities. Being small, they also often had the character and quirkiness that no mass-produced chain can ever replicate. And by being so, they also contributed to a local sense of place. In their stead, one senses lost local autonomy – these ‘outlets’ are run by and for people a long way away, with no local knowledge or concern, each place they land on just another ‘retail opportunity’ to add to the corporate bottom line.

It has to be admitted that small businesses in France are also retreating – but the Italians seem largely to be holding out. One might also ponder the amount of employment that hundreds of small, local cafes and restaurants create – I suspect rather more, and for different people, than the chains that ousted them.

One might have welcomed the arrival of cafe culture in this country – and with it the glories of the traditional French patisserie. But in typical British style, what we actually got was large conglomerates selling watered-down facsimiles of the real thing on an industrial scale. Not at all the same thing as the multitude of such places that still give towns in France and Italy their appeal. How do they get away with it? Why will the British populace accept this, in a way which their peers in France or Italy just would not? (And come to think of it why, as Mitchell also observes, is the British mainstay not the millefeuille but the iced bun? Maybe that explains a lot…)

The emergence of these chains is explained solely by a political culture in this country that embraces big corporations with little thought for their impact on communities or local economies. That they suck wealth out of provincial centres and into metropolitan corporations is no problem for governments in thrall to The City. But it feels very different from the other end of the line: the turning of our regional centres into clone towns, dominated by large extractive businesses, feels wrong. And while even a Starbucks may be preferable to an empty building, the blighting effect of large chains on local businesses is not imaginary.

It has contributed to a very immediate, local sense that the whole country is being run by, and for the exclusive benefit of, big business – absorbing and bastardising any good concept from which it can make a buck, sweeping all before its own selfish interests, be that the quality of the Black Forest gateau or the proper employment and training of local staff. One only has to enter an independent cafe or restaurant to notice that the whole character and ethos of such places is different: somehow more authentic, more distinctive, closer to those on the continent.

To be fair, Luke Johnson (still the majority owner of Valerie) has tried to do the honourable thing, ploughing in his own wealth to save the company and its employees. But big business simply does not work in the same way as small – investors are anonymous and impersonal, and care about little other than their dividends. And with a staff of thousands, there is simply no way one can retain the personal touch.

I can’t help but feel that this corporatisation of Britain and the sterilisation of the social function of places like cafes, bars and restaurants, have contributed to the wider disaffection. Unlike the pride that a good, proprietor-owned cafe often takes in its products and its relationship with customers, chains are impersonal, transient and lacking in any real character. They could, by definition, be anywhere. People are served mass-produced, dumbed-down ‘product’ whose main purpose is to minimise corporate overheads, in bland surroundings whose main purpose is to be cheaply replicable anywhere – and easily disposable when the time comes for a corporate re-brand.

People have been given the choice between no services and corporate giants, and to anyone concerned about local distinctiveness – let alone the quality of the cake – it does all feel very wrong. It’s not surprising that people feel alienated. But we can’t absolve the wider population either: for all that the choices may have been limited, these chains have only flourished because of the indiscriminate willingness of the population to be served cheap, conveyor-belt food and drink in cardboard cut-out surroundings, when they could have been supporting authentic local alternatives.

To that extent, the nation has once again got what it deserves: a whole country that is little more than a dumbed-down clone of itself, largely run for the benefit of a few shareholders.  A rootless Anywheresville of non-communities which makes life itself feel fake – and only now, when it may be too late, is it realising the cost of its obsession with cheapness, gimmickry and its acceptance of bland uniformity.

Like the Brexit decision which resulted, it could all have been so different.