Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Is the tide turning?

Britain’s long, febrile ‘continental’ summer seems to be affecting people’s minds. The campaign for a second EU referendum seems to be gathering pace, as it becomes increasingly clear that the supposed options and benefits of leaving are not on the table. Hard Brexiters and Hard Remainers are joining forces in their opposition to what is on the table.

Some Leavers are starting to conclude that life outside the EU is not going to be on the terms they claimed, and that May’s compliance-without-influence solution is not acceptable. With which I generally agree, except if the alternative is No Deal.

I want to consider here some alternative ways of looking at the issue of remaining in the E.U. I will start by conceding that they do depend on a certain perception of the players involved which not everyone shares. In particular, beliefs about the current efficacy of the U.K. as a sovereign nation-state and the reasons why the EU is pursuing the approach to Brexit that it is.

My own pro-Europeanism is not fundamentally political. For most of my adult life, I have travelled in other European countries at least two or three times a year. I have made lasting and in some cases close friendships with people in those countries (both ex-pats and nationals), to the point that nationality has all but disappeared as an issue. The mental map that defines my own life is now quite instinctively at least as often that of Europe as that of Britain. It feels a good way to live.

Those many, many visits to other countries have led me, despite my best efforts to shake off the effect of rose-tinted spectacles, to the conclusion that in general, life as a citizen of many of the countries with whom we might compare ourselves, is better than it is in this country. It is seen in part from the materially superior condition of those countries, where investment in infrastructure has been more consistent, where matters such as people’s living environments are generally more pleasant, and where higher material standards still seem to be balanced by a stronger commitment to matters such as social justice and the environment.

But it is also there in aspects that are much less visible. The mindset of people – even close friends – is different, in ways that even they may not realise. The embedded class-consciousness of Britain is absent: people simply do not have such a strong sense of social hierarchy, and it is liberating for one’s perception of one’s place in the world. Total equality of opportunity and income is never achievable – but the much greater sense of equality in people’s minds makes a significant difference. In my experience it means, for instance, that corporate structures are flatter, and people are given more agency to run their own affairs. One might claim that trust remains stronger: certainly I saw that when comparing the experiences of colleagues in my own field of education with experiences in Britain.

What’s more, structures are organised to push in this direction, rather than reinforce privilege. Policies such as legally-guaranteed worker representation in company board rooms makes corporate mal-governance less likely, while stronger environmental regulation adds different restraints. Quick-win shareholder gains are not top priority in the economy. But it is also the mindset that tends to make wrong-doing less likely in the first place: there is often a stronger sense of civic obligation than remains in Britain, where we have been fed ‘dog-eat-dog’ for four decades or more.

By comparison, revelations in recent years have shown just how rotten the British system has become. Even setting aside matters such as the parliamentary expenses scandal, the prevalence of lobbying, big-money influence, the too-close forms of patronage suggest that too much is done in Westminster for reasons other than democratic mandate. There is too much evidence for at least some of it not to be true. The mis-representation of the population in terms of the elected representatives and other top positions is more evidence that this country is not – and probably never has been – really run ‘for the people’ in the way post-War continental countries have come much closer to.

Another part of the problem is the Monarchy. Whatever one thinks of those individuals, the fact that the British monarchy remains the most influential in Europe distorts the mindset of the entire nation. Deference to a hereditary individual – and the existence of the whole associated hierarchy – is simply not compatible with running a nation in the name of ‘The People’.

Then we have the electoral system. As Vince Cable recently observed, in a first-past-the-post system, the formation of more than two parties distorts the process by dividing the vote, and can be seen as electoral suicide by anyone contemplating it. This creates a system where binary choices are the norm, and where far too much effort is put into winning power and discrediting the opposition. It operates on confrontation rather than consensus, and it means that the country is in a constant state of conflict between two power-groups. The effects can be seen everywhere in the utter inconsistency of national policy over decades, the frequent policy reverses and the vast waste of money, time and resources that accompanies it.

It is probably an integral feature of relatively educated populations that consensus will fragment as people gain more ability to make decisions about their own lives. Set against that, Britain has a large remnant of under-educated population, whose tribal instincts are increasingly manipulated by the media – and which ironically play to the status quo. And it is large enough to sway the political process.

For all its compromises and complexities, a system that accurately represents multiple viewpoints has to be preferable, and that means proportional representation. The fact that it is mis-sold in Britain cannot hide the fact that almost all other democracies now use it in one form or another. The fact that it requires compromise and consensus surely has to be worth the difficulties – and its tendency is to promote agreement where it can be found, rather than manufacturing disagreement even where there is none, which is a feature of the FPP system.

So much for Britain’s shortcomings. What about those of the E.U.?

It is certainly not perfect – what system is? But it seems to me to be the logical extension of co-operation between European nations. Indeed, what would that co-operation mean without some organ by which it is conducted? I do not believe that shifting bilateral agreements between nations would ever achieve the same thing. And we all live far too close to each other ever for Splendid Isolation to work.

Some have criticised the E.U. for its inflexibility in the Brexit negotiations. But it is a rules-based system – something that again the British system cannot understand. It means that the rules, once agreed, have to be rigorously but impartially applied, otherwise they are meaningless. And that means that Britain needs to accept that it cannot cherry-pick EU membership, however much the British Establishment might be used to doing precisely that everywhere else.

It would be naive to think that all other EU countries are perfect; of course they have their own inconsistencies and play for their own interests too – and this is why a strict framework of rules is necessary. But we should not forget that they have been agreed by all national legislatures, including our own. So they are not ‘imposed’ by some faceless third party. As any sport fan will hopefully recognise, any match only works if both sides accept the rules, even when they work to their short-term disadvantage. One might hope principled nations would accept the same. Or maybe some have difficulties with that; I really don’t know.

Personally, I have never seen the European issue primarily as one of competition.

There is always a case for reviewing the functioning of the EU – but it can only be done from the inside. Having studied the workings of the EU at length in order to teach students, they seem to me to be well thought out, and logical, in a way that the British system – which has never been fully modernised – just is not. I advocate the strengthening of the European Parliament, because it has a direct democratic mandate. But we should not forget that the European Council does too, as it is made up of national administrations.

While the E.U. may seem remote from everyday life, in some ways that is a good thing. For a start, it can hardly be otherwise when it represents such a huge populace – but that is not to deny that it still deals with issues of concern to all Europeans. It needs to have a degree of detachment in order to remain impartial.

But one might consider it to be the higher chamber of a bicameral system where the national legislatures constitute the lower house. In all such systems, the duty of the upper house is to be impartial, to take the larger, more principled view and remain above the partisan and often short-term priorities of party politics. That is in effect what the E.U. already does. Alternatively, one might perceive it as a collective European presidency – in the sense that a president remains above partisan loyalties.

I view it as the guarantor of trans-national stability and co-ordination in Europe, the defender of cross-border issues such as trade, travel and the environment – and the promoter of inter-national understanding – which I suspect is actually what a lot of anti-Europeans feel afraid of. My experience is that it is liberating and affirming to cross borders. The island-nation British would benefit from doing more of it – and I don’t mean just by going on more holidays. One way the EU could help this would be by diverting cohesion funds to drastically reducing the costs of cross-Channel travel. Although even there, many of the practical barriers to movement actually originate in Westminster rather than Brussels.

I do rather hope that the E.U. is deliberately playing hard-ball on the Brexit negotiations. But I also believe that it is not doing it to be cussed – or from megalomaniac tendencies. It has a responsibility to uphold the principles agreed by all member states – and that includes the indivisibility of the four principles of mobility. But I also hope it believes that by forcing Britain to make a hard choice,  it will bring this nation to its senses for its own sake, as to where its real best interests lie.

Because where the British have got a short deal from E.U. membership, it has often been due to their own insistence on semi-detachment and opt-outs. Who really loses out from the Home Office’s insistence on retaining frontier checks? Or indeed from the need still to change currency? Or from the exemption from the Working Time Directive? Or from the national failure to implement high environmental standards (such that we have been fined for it)? Who will really gain if Human Rights legislation is repealed in post-Brexit Britain?

One has to question why systems that suit 27 other countries (including Schengen) are so anathema to the 28th. Why is Britain so exceptional? I suspect the real reason is that the nation’s ruling classes realised that they were going to lose too much of their traditional hegemony if European standards and systems were given the free rein that have everywhere else. But from past and recent experience, perpetuating that is certainly not in the wider national interest. I would rather put my faith in remote but impartial bureaucrats than the entitled classes of the British Establishment.

The big problem that remains to be solved lies not in Brussels, but with those in the U.K. who cannot see that the real problems lie much closer to home in the unreformed way in which the U.K. still operates – and above all in their own heads.

 

Food, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Whatever happened to the Great British food revolution?

 

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Great architecture; food less so…

 

Not so long ago, this country spent much time congratulating itself on how it had transformed itself from the culinary dunce of the modern world into its finest destination. New eateries seemed to be popping up on a weekly basis, and the quality and choice on offer was always improving. So what happened?

I have no doubt there are now many more good places to eat in Britain than used to be the case, some of which I have mentioned previously in this blog – but as always, we seem to have fallen victim to faddism, of which veganism is probably just the latest manifestation. This, in my mind, is not the transformation that was being claimed, and given the disparities I see between the foodie culture being purveyed in the media (much of which I suspect is consumed vicariously) and what trundles down the average supermarket checkout conveyor, I wonder whether anything has really changed.

For the increased niceties of the top end do not a revolution make. Far more important in my view are the daily habits of the population at large. Here at Sprezz. H.Q. I can claim with pride, but more importantly honesty, that food is prepared from scratch on a daily basis, wherever possible using fresh ingredients from the unassuming local farm shop. It is not posh food, more often than not a bowl of pasta or a salad with a few comfortable old favourites regularly thrown in for good measure. But even this may be unusual – who knows?

A recent visit to Lincoln reinforced my doubts. I hadn’t been to that city since childhood, and it was indeed a pleasant place to spend a couple of days. The cathedral and its close are very fine, and even the more mundane parts have benefitted from a seemingly-attentive local council and the arrival of one of the country’s more successful new universities.

The place clearly has some wealth (which I mention inasmuch as it may indicate the existence of foodie types), but it is by no means all gentrified. We enjoyed our couple of days there – but the one disappointment was the food. This is not a ‘pop’ at Lincoln, for I suspect the issue is equally true of most British towns; we certainly found the same to be true in Newark, where we called en route, and our local towns don’t seem to be very different either. In fact, things seem to have gone downhill in recent years. The vast majority of eateries that we found were either the usual clone-chains (which have colonised Lincoln’s pleasant waterfront as predictably as they have in Poole, Ipswich and most other places) – and those independents that we did find seemed largely intent on pretending they were chains too.

There was a preponderance of burgers (sometimes posh, sometimes not), steak, chips, and various things covered in melted cheese. Even the several eateries in our hotel were pretty much the same. To the annoyance of my wife, many of such salads as were on offer contained meat, and nothing to suggest one might ask for anything different. We tried what was reputedly the best Italian restaurant in town – which was also noisily trying to pretend it was actually a fast food joint; the food was passable but nothing special, and the service abrupt, though definitely not in the French way…. Much of the menu still came with chips, sad lettuce leaves and slices of under-ripe tomato – and if that was acclaimed at the best….

Compare this to the average French, German or Italian town, where in our experience, one has a fighting chance of finding decent, basic food even at the most average pavement cafe. The produce is fresh, the variety wide and the willingness to accommodate individual needs normally present. I know climate plays a part in this – but it is not as though imported produce is not available. And in any case, the real trick is to use local produce, of which Lincolnshire is hardly short. To be fair, there were a number of decent independent butchers and more selling local produce; it just didn’t seem to be making it into the restaurants.

On the second night, we repaired to Carluccio’s – which while a chain has at least stuck to its founder’s vision, and reliably offers good food in pleasant surroundings; in our opinion it exceeded the previous night’s experience.

Despite the nation’s crowing about its food, I suspect there is now a general decline going on. The ‘casual dining’ chains are losing customers and closing branches. I’m not surprised given the uninspiring offerings they too often have – but I’m not confident they are falling from grace in favour of superior offerings. Unfortunately, even Carluccio’s is suffering – though I was pleased to ascertain that the Lincoln branch will remain. The place needs it.

And just to conclude (partly for the benefits of the Lincolnites who may read this) this piece is not a slur on that city; we very much enjoyed our visit. It is a fine place that warrants attention, even if a little tatty round the edges. It just a happened to function as a semi-random test of the current state of public dining in the U.K. – and it would seem that other than trophy-dining at the upper end of the market, not as much has changed as we seemed to believe.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Travelling in Style?

I named this blog carefully, in the belief that attention to the small things is often what transforms mere existence into Living. It is also a study in how this happens – and rather too often fails to.

I think that the truest reflection of the nature of a place or people is found not in the grand gestures, but in the small, everyday matters that contribute to making life what it is or isn’t. Sheer experience has shown that the approaches to this are not the same everywhere: some cultures appear to attach more importance to both pleasing appearance and high quality than others; one of my perpetual gripes about Britain is that so much here feels temporary and insubstantial, even when it is perhaps not. Maybe we need to pay more attention to the details.

Or rather, it’s not that we can’t do things well – but the average British mindset seems to view everyday life as a fairly rudimentary affair, and any grace as a luxury for which one must pay heavily.

This is a great pity, given the tendency of the British to grumble about everyday life, because I firmly believe that the solution is actually in people’s own hands. Special occasions may be great, but what we do with each and every day has a larger impact on the full experience of life. Hence my valuing of the notion of sprezzatura.

I am going to take several posts to examine some rather esoteric example of how different nations approach everyday matters. This post is one of two about transport design. On the face of it, this may not seem an important matter – but quite apart from the technical complexities of the subject, the way in which nations treat their travel spaces is a small but accessible window on the national psyche (I recall a senior Ford marketer once telling me that in Britain people buy cars on the strength of the exterior, whereas in Germany it is the interior that counts…)

Getting transport design right has the potential to transform a trying necessity into a stylish, enjoyable experience.

Railway carriage design might be expected to be important to the British, given the length of time many of them spend commuting. It is also a challenging design problem, given the many constraints that bear on it – from the inherently awkward, tube-like shape of the vehicles, to the increasingly stringent health and safety requirements, let alone the need to squeeze huge amounts of functional technology into confined spaces while keeping the whole usable by the public. I have travelled thousands of miles around Europe by train, and have experienced many approaches to this conundrum, some much more successful than others from the passenger’s perspective. One cannot but help compare and contrast. A comfortably-executed train journey is one of life’s pleasures, and with the need to get people out of their cars, one might have thought attention to that experience would be high on operator’s agendas. It is – sometimes.

So here is a selection of interiors from around the railways of Europe, with a little cultural commentary…

We’ll start with the home offering. Given the fragmented nature of Britain’s railways, there is no standard design. Companies do their own thing, and it is fair to say that maximising bums-on-seats is their top priority. One can forgive them the inherited problems caused by vehicle dimensions significantly smaller than those on the continent (notably 300-plus mm less width) – but arguably this is all the more reason for creative solutions. In the 1850s, regular-class accommodation was little more than cattle wagons; while standards have obviously risen across the board, the mentality for standard-rate travel in the U.K. is still largely the same…

FGW interior

Exhibit 1 is fairly typical of a British inter-city train today. This is a First Great Western example, and shows what happens when you give a train to what is basically a bus company. The high back seats are a legislative response to rail accidents, while the airline configuration does provide leg room and a little privacy in a high-density interior. But the lighting is stark and far too bright, while the colour scheme is naive and garish – precisely the wrong shades of pink and blue. The overall effect is bleak: I can say from experience that this is not a restful environment in which to spend a couple of hours. In fact, if it were not such a challenging assault on the senses, it would be downright unpleasant.

The same company is taking delivery of a new fleet of government-specified trains, and exhibit 2 shows the latest offering:

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I have yet to travel on one of these trains. I find the pared-back, more ‘streamlined’ interior an improvement, though apparently the seats are uncomfortable. Streamlined is a good approach for rail vehicles, given both their inherent shape and the safety considerations involved. But it is still just rather dull, and a real disappointment compared with the sleek enticement to travel that these new flagship trains could have been.

Virgin is also taking delivery of the same fleet. Exhibit 3 shows an original Virgin Pendolino interior, which shows what happens when you give a train to what is basically a cut-price airline. I found to be extremely cramped and claustrophobic, not helped by the sloping walls (needed to keep the vehicle within its dynamic envelope when tilting). I also greatly dislike Virgin’s overly funky, pop-approach to design (and affairs generally – note to marketers, I don’t want to be told I’ve successfully bought a ticket with the word wayhey!!! in huge letters – where’s your dignity, let alone mine?)

virgin pend01

We have more garish primary colours, naff blue lighting in the luggage areas and the generally low-brow feel of a fast-food outlet.

The refurbished fleet on Virgin’s East Coast route fares a little better; this is the company’s second attempt at a train interior; perhaps they are slowly learning. (Exhibit 4):

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…while the same company’s interior (exhibit 5) for the new Inter-City fleet (not yet in service) is at least a little less gloomy than the Great Western offering for the same train – but is still garish in its primary brightness. I suppose this might play well with Virgin’s core youth market – but what about the other segments of the travel market? Still, compare and contrast with exhibit 1…

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One of the chief failings of the private companies that entered the British rail market was that they has little ‘feel’ for rail design issues such as the inherent form of the vehicles, something exacerbated by the ‘need’ for loud branding.

Chiltern is a long-term franchise, and it has been a good innovator over the years. Exhibit 6 shows the interior of one of its latest inter-city offerings. I must admit I am not sure what to make of this, and I have not sampled one in the flesh. Chiltern evolved from an old British Rail sector, and I think the its inherent feel for the design of rail vehicles shows, but while this arguably has atmosphere and ‘presence’, it is also perhaps rather drab, and just too subdued.

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We start to look a little further afield now. Exhibit 7 (below) shows the interior of an Irish inter-city coach from the flagship Dublin-Cork service. The outside ‘face’ of these trains is daringly raked – but as a result, the interiors are all the more of a disappointment: dull, cluttered and visually noisy, with little design credibility at all. Not sure the Irish have really developed much design cred as yet. Straight out of the 1980’s – and they haven’t even got the excuse of a restricted loading gauge.

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Things start to get more interesting when one crosses the Channel. Deutsche Bahn is a highly efficient operator, and as expected its best fleets are high in quality. German design perhaps lacks a little visual flair, but everything feels very solid, with lots of leather, glass and blond wood; there is a hi-tech sleekness to it all. Exhibit 8 shows the interior of an ICE high speed train. I like the imaginative use of glass partitions to keep the interior open and airy, while the snazzy mirror-fronted information display is much less obtrusive than those in British trains. What’s more, the electronic seat reservation system always seems to be working…

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…and who can resist this opportunity (Exhibit 9 – which I have taken more than once)? In a move that would give British H&S bods nightmares, it is possible to sit in the driving vehicle, and watch the route ahead unfold at 300kph over the driver’s shoulder. The driver can blank the screen out if (s)he needs, as it is liquid-crystal glass. The seats are even banked for a better view…

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Heading to the rail paradise that is Switzerland, we find low-key restraint. SBB has a very modish image, but its interiors are quite sober. However, the quality is again high – more like the fittings on a luxury car. Exhibit 11 (below) shows the upper deck on an inter-city set; the careful lighting mitigates any feelings of claustrophobia in what is a fairly restricted space.

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Exhibit 12 shows another glory of Swiss railways – the retention of proper restaurant/bistro cars. This is the design for the latest upper-deck incarnation, and they still have proper table linen, cutlery and china… The monochrome colour scheme is nicely relieved by just the right hit of purple…

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More of a surprise comes from some of the nations traditionally associated with good design: Italy, Spain and Scandinavia. The Italians have never quite translated their mastery of automotive design to their railways, and the results often look as though they are trying too hard on the outside, and not hard enough on the inside (exhibit 13). Interesting to note that the same capacity preoccupation exists on private trains in Italy as in Britain…

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First class on the FS Frecciarossa is a little more like it (exhibit 14) –

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but in fact some of Italy’s slightly older trains actually seem to have more style, here almost a classic mid-century feel… (exhibit 16)

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At least first class on the privately-operated Italo has a little more Italian brio about it (Exhibit 16). I’m not sure that all that shiny caramel leather really works, but I like the sleek partition behind them and the generous sense of space. The same preoccupation with advertising seems to be present…

italo

Spanish railways also major on cool design (Exhibit 17). This is the interior of one of RENFE’s AVE high speed trains. Admittedly this is first class; the leather seats are nicely tailored, and the colours scheme cool – but I wonder how long that pale wood floor will stay looking pristine. All in all, a good offering from a network that has been extremely successful in attracting travellers from their cars in recent years.

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In design terms, Danish trains are very disappointing. I suppose they do reflect the low-key organic Scandinavian approach to design, but despite the abstract end-panel graphics, I would have hoped for something more achingly stylish than this…

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(Exhibit 18)

I am of course saving the best until last. Of all the nations of Europe, when it comes to rail, the French seem to have the best, most innate design sense; from their graphic design to the chic announcement chimes that are almost a national institution, and the contemporary daring of some of their station architecture, they seem to have the right conditions in place to perceive a rail journey as a stylish rather than functional matter. Their train interiors reflect that. This is the nation that put its best fashion designers to work on its train interiors, and the latest offering from Christian Lacroix strikes an excellent balance between the inevitable constraints of a railway coach and doing something chic, different and yet accessible with it. (Exhibit 19). From the asymmetrical seat backs to the integrated reading lights, the funky carpet and the quite daring choice of colours, this is a stylish yet fun environment in which to travel.

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The following images show a refurbished elderly regional train in France, and the latest experiments for the next generation for inner suburban design. Can you imagine such things happening in Britain?

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By contrast, Exhibit 22 shows the latest British offering for the forthcoming Crossrail service in London; no contest. (I refuse to call it by the fawningly sentimental name Elizabeth Line). Even the upholstery (which I suppose is meant to be stylish) looks as though it is trying too hard and yet simultaneously fails to make any impact.

eliz line

Exhibit 23: Credit where credit’s due: the interiors for the new generation of Eurostar trains is up there with the best, something close to what this service should have offered from the start. It was always the best offering on British soil – probably because the designs were French. The latest version, of which this is the buffet, is a German designed train, with an Italian interior by Pininfarina. Why aren’t all trains like this?

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It is perhaps pushing the point a bit far to claim that national train interiors reflect national temperaments and priorities – but there is nonetheless a wide variety of approach. As I said at the start, the design of things like train is a significant factor in the whole experience of using them, and it is not as though there is no precedent – from Pullmans to Wagons-Lits, style has always been part of rail travel. But in the case of modern British offerings, there is as usual, still too much reverence for traces of ‘heritage’ in the use of bulbous chair shapes, swirly carpets and soft-font signage, while the actual (hidden) agenda is pack ‘em in cheaply in Standard and fleece ‘em for First.

It is a huge disappointment that Great Western Railway (itself a self-conscious resuscitation of a historic brand) has seen no better than to regale its state of the art trains with fake-heritage insignia and a dull, supposedly historic livery. It is a far cry from the strong contemporary image of British Rail in the 1960 and 70s.

There is insufficient clarity and simplicity of line and surface in the interiors of modern British trains, and too little reference to the form that the design needs to follow. This is all the more apparent when one sees some of the crude exterior treatments that have also proliferated, which make no reference to the inherent shape of the train whatsoever. Likewise, the choice of colours is often ill-considered: there is a world of difference between a chic acid green and a dull bottle green, such as GWR have seen fit to throw wholesale over the exterior of their ultra-modern new trains. Graphic art is another field where the French excel, whereas too many British efforts are just dull and clunky.

This is not, however, to say that the continentals always get it right either, as the preceding pictures show.

But there, in one, is the difference in temperament after all – between the sleek chic of the best continental design, and the dull clunky norm in Britain. From the way they dress to the way they furnish their homes, it seems to me that the average Brit has learned little from the supposed design revolution of recent decades. Even IKEA modernism was just another passing fad. So I very much doubt that the average Briton even notices poor design when it comes to public transport, even if they still suffer its ill effects. For all that we bang on about being a world-class nation, when it comes to matters of public utility – not to mention the ‘shop window’ that public transport presents to the visiting world at large – too often we are plain, simple disappointing.

I suspect visual literacy just isn’t in our genes.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Speaking truth to power

I can find little to quibble with in Aeron Davis’ conclusions to his book; part is worth quoting:

We are long due an overhaul of many of our systems and institutions. So many have become something they were never intended to be. Yet leaders and the public continue as if they still operate as they once did. Progressive change in all of them would certainly rein in leaders and re-attach them to publics in various ways.

He singles out:

  • The electoral system which is ‘not one that any emerging democracy would choose now’.
  • The lack of a written constitution with poor checks and balances.
  • The secretive, insular and now market-orientated civil service.
  • The Financial Services sector that extracts far more from the economy than it contributes (and upon which, scarily, we have based our entire economy)
  • The system of corporate governance which is far too orientated towards short-term shareholder returns.
  • The news media which is (even) less independent and more in hoc to those in power and media moguls than it appears.
  • Intermediary professions whose role is too often to reinforce the system – for example accountants advising on tax law and then offering tax avoidance services.
  • The ability of many of these institutions to self-regulate, which is not sufficient to face down vested interests.

Davis avoids the error of demonising those at the top, many of whom, he says are complex, conflicted individuals often operating in a contrary and highly contradictory system.

His conclusions are not exactly new – but this book is the most substantial piece of evidence I have encountered to suggest that they are generally valid, and not just the product of an alternative political agenda. The pity is that he only dedicates four pages of 140 to solutions; that may be significant.

Events in recent times – including the last week – suggest that he is overwhelmingly correct. But what is to be done about a regressive, entrenched establishment that only ever argues for its own self-interest, dressed up as the status quo?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Reckless opportunists

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It just isn’t done, even today (or perhaps that should be especially today) to criticise your country. Patriotism seems to be on the rise, rather than as one might hope, declining as people achieve wider world-views and realise that there is more to human life that binds than divides, everywhere.

I’ve never had an issue with pride in things that genuinely warrant it – but that is very different from the mindless, drum-banging jingoism that seems to be re-awakening. I am entirely serious about this: I recall one occasion when we took parents to a ‘replica’ Last Night of the Proms at the Albert Hall (sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, which had thoughtfully provided every seat with a branded, plastic Union Jack to wave at the appropriate moment). It was an uncomfortable experience, when that moment arrived, for my wife and me to be the only people in the Hall who felt unable to surge to our feet in what felt like an outpouring of cheap, plastic, branded jingoism – or more likely, a worryingly easily-induced expression of the national herd mentality. In fact, it was almost scary to be the refusenik couple in a crowd of several thousand – but I hope this incident in a small way vindicates the sincerity of my position – my national pride needs to be justifiable.

At present, it feels anything but. Britain is currently rocketing up my list of the world’s nasty countries. With yet another improperly-sanctioned military outing, this time in Syria, the Windrush scandal – not to mention the institutionalised, exceptionalist arrogance which still dominates relations with the rest of Europe (if not the world), it is very easy to come to the conclusion that this is a bellicose, toxic, hawkish nation, for all that it hides it beneath a supposedly-mild manner.

For anyone doubting the wider significance of all this, I suggest a read of Aeron Davis’ new book Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of Establishment. Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths, London. He has had over thirty years’ access to top people in the worlds of finance, business, politics and the media.

The book describes the vacuum behind the power-elites in current British society. The reviews on the rear cover accurately describe his findings as ‘terrifying’. What he describes is the utterly cynical way in which everything from hedge funds to government now function, the purpose of delivering meaningful services and support to wider society long ago having been subordinated to achieving and retaining power for its own sake. Almost as alarming are the changes that have taken place well out of the public eye in recent decades, which completely transformed the way the ‘system’ operates, from a moderately benign if elitist old-boy network, to something altogether more rapacious and vacuously short-termist.

Davis is clearly not without his own political stance, but I think it is visible enough to be allowed for, and I still find his accounts and conclusions deeply concerning. In any case, I am more inclined to trust a senior academic than the spin-doctors at the Mail, Express or Telegraph. Even for those who tend to support the status quo, the book’s strap line ought to be worrying, for he shows how in addition to everything else, the current arrangements risk destroying much of the system that supports it. Personally, I wouldn’t be especially concerned about that – provided it was possible to replace it with something more transparent and less toxic. But, if only for the fact that my patriotism simply takes a different form from normal, I would be extremely concerned that its collapse would drag the rest of us down with it as so nearly already happened in 2008.

The sad thing is, there has never been more coverage of the more benign conditions in other comparable countries. There is really nothing to stop Britain taking on the enlightened views of the Dutch, Swiss, Scandinavians or Canadians. Nothing at all to stop its hawkish drum-banging on the world stage, and to start it on a route of genuine social improvement. Except the self-important, puffed-up national mindset, and the corrupt systems that feed it, and on it.

It is not unpatriotic to face up to one’s country’s shortcomings: in the case of Britain, the worst of all is the delusion that it really is a proper, well-functioning democracy, when what we actually have is something between an oligarchy and an elective dictatorship .

Until this country changes to become a proper liberal, social democracy, with decent standards for all, adequate social and environmental protections, a less punitive attitude towards the majority of its own citizens, a more reasonable relationship with neighbours from whom it might actually learn a lot – and a more forward-looking approach to its problems, I am afraid I will not find much to feel genuinely proud of about Britain, no matter what the group-think might require. And no, appeals to history, even if justified, are not enough.

Strongly recommended reading for anyone wanting to know more about the way power now operates in this country.

 

 

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

What is becoming of the British town centre?

When Richard Beeching closed many of Britain’s branch line railways in the mid 1960’s, he was probably doing some necessary pruning – except that he didn’t realise that he was cutting not branches but roots. It later became evident how those smaller operations fed nutrients – in the form of custom – into the bigger lines. The consequence was a decline in use of the railways that took decades to reverse.

One might have hoped that we had learned the lesson – but it seems as though Britain’s town centres are going the same way. Walking around my local one (which had better remain nameless for fear of doing it more harm), I was shocked at its state of decline. I must admit, we go there rarely these days – which probably tells its own truth – so it was saddening to see the number of empty premises, tatty-looking streets and rather unsavoury-looking characters hanging around. Perhaps more frequent visits would have concealed the steepness of the decline.

This is not one of the centres of despair in the post-industrial wastelands of the North, but a major town of over 120,000 people, in one of the more prosperous parts of the south – and it is growing quickly. So what is happening to its urban fabric?

I think a number of factors are playing a part – and just as in the case of Beeching and the railways, own goals feature strongly.

I am part of that problem. I don’t mind for one minute being thought of as having obscure or even rarefied tastes – but be that as it may, my local town simply no longer caters for them as it used to. Consequently, I rarely find any need to spend money there, because it provides little that I need or want. The internet is of course a major part of this – but equally culpable, in my opinion, is the retail sector of Great Britain which has increasingly been dominated by chains such that anyone whose taste does not fall within the mainstream is less likely to be catered for. If you want to buy leisure-wear, you have the entire town to play with; look for any other form of decent menswear and you are struggling (except for a couple of very expensive shops). The same is true for music: the high street stores used to keep reasonable selections of minority genres; mostly now gone – so I buy my music from online specialists. I could go on: the point is this – by narrowing their offerings, and simultaneously putting many local specialist shops out of business, the retail sector has in effect excluded many of those smaller tribes who nonetheless collectively brought patronage to town centres.

There then followed a downward spiral – not helped in the least by three other factors:

1) the insistence of the local council on bleeding people dry for parking in the town, while for many years failing to provide workable alternatives in the form of good public transport. I know many people who will not use the town on account of its parking charges. I am talking here about often well-heeled people who live in the surrounding hinterland. Those who are left are the ones who cannot afford to go anywhere else.

2) The same council’s granting of permission for yet more out-of-town retail and leisure developments ostensibly to cater for the town’s growth – but which in reality only deprive the centre of trade.

3) The bleeding dry of funds from central government that has prevented local councils from maintaining their urban fabric, let alone innovating. But that is not the whole story: the town received a spectacular new art gallery some years ago – but the approach path is still half-screened off behind rusty, corrugated iron in an area where a redevelopment scheme never seems to happen. It can only be off-putting to potential visitors and the public image.

I am puzzled by one thing: towns on the continent must be encountering the same challenges from e-commerce (though I gather the Brits have been early adopters, as usual with anything that allows them never to leave their couches) – and there is no shortage of out-of-town retailing on the continent either – but the same hollowing-out effect seems not to be present.

Maybe it comes down simply to the fact that people in those countries simply have greater spending power to support more retailers – but I also wonder whether it is also something to do with the fact that continental towns have never been simply retail machines in the way British ones were allowed to become. There still seem to be more inner-urban dwellers on the continent (though it does also seem to be increasing in Britain) – and perhaps more significantly, people in France, Italy and elsewhere know how to inhabit their towns in a way the British have lost – or never had. The variety of cultural events seems to be much greater – and the food scene is not dominated by the increasingly tacky-looking chain restaurants that now line most British town streets as retail has fled. They also tend to have better public transport to bring people in from outlying districts.

I am sure the desire for greater choice has something to do with the problems in Britain: while I don’t buy often, I do spend money on good quality when I need something; but I will not part with cash for something sub-standard and no doubt I’m not alone in that demographic. People of that profile have been repelled by mainstream retail as I described. They also happen to be mobile: I can buy premium goods more cheaply at a nearby outlet village, likewise those and specialist goods online – and when I want the full urban experience, I am less than a hour’s drive from one place that is noticeably bucking the trend: Cambridge.

Cambridge also shows that while money clearly speaks (it has an evident glut), town centres can still work in Britain by providing for people with diverse needs and by offering more than just bleak, clone-retail. While Cambridge does have its critics, the sheer attractiveness and liveliness of its townscape makes up for a lot.

My local town also has an attractive townscape – indeed one of the more dramatic High Streets in the country – which the local council has repeatedly failed to pedestrianise it properly. It has other fine buildings too – some of which have been left to become weed-covered eyesores for want of an enlightened planning policy.

In the end it is the ability of local worthies to capitalise on what they have that I think has made the difference between Cambridge and my local centre. Quite what all the extra thousands who are expected to come to live in the newly-built acres of rabbit hutches are going to get out of their lives there is anyone’s guess.

A little vision goes a long way. And a lack of it can create a disaster where there need be none.

Opinion & Thought, Travel

An M25 for high speed trains?

HS4a schematic

Our last two trips on the continent were both by train. The first was to Lyon, the second to Basel via Strasbourg. In the past it has always been necessary to change trains in Paris, and using the RER (fast metro) with luggage was never the easiest of experiences. However, recent high-speed openings have changed the landscape. The trip to Lyon involved a twenty-minute wait at Lille Europe, which is just one hour from where we parked our car at Ebbsfleet, just off the M25. At Lille, we switched to a TGV duplex (double deck) which was heading for Marseille. The trip from Lille to Lyon was three hours, making a car-to-hotel time of a little under six hours, not very much longer than the time by air with all its attendant mucking around. The second trip was very similar, with a change in Lille onto a Strasbourg train again around about a three-hour direct time. Back in 2006, the last time I travelled to Strasbourg by train, it was four hours just from Paris.

What has made this possible is the completion of further high-speed rail in France, most particularly the extension east to Strasbourg. It seems to have prompted SNCF to re-cast its connections in Lille so that they are now useable by British travellers. The key section of track was built some time ago, which is the Paris by-pass, which means that trains can travel direct between provincial centres using this by-pass line as a hub-and-spoke network.

In my opinion, London desperately needs something similar. With the construction of High Speed 2 to Birmingham getting tentatively underway, the time to think about this is now. The original intention was to link the new line to the Channel Tunnel line under London, but this was abandoned due to the cost. Those making the decisions seemed incapable of conceiving that people from north of London might ever want to travel anywhere beyond our capital. As a result, people seeking a connection will need to make their way along the Euston Road and check in all over again at St. Pancras, which one estimate suggests could add two hours to the journey time from, for example Birmingham to Paris, thus rendering it utterly and hopelessly uncompetitive with air. One might have hoped that the extra millions spent to facilitate better connections with the entire north of Britain might have been worth it – but it seems not. Such is Whitehall bunker thinking.

At last, however, it seems as though there is a little creative thinking going on about the nation’s transport needs. It’s a pity it is coming from a private sector company rather than a forward-thinking State, but anything is better than nothing, and the company concerned is highly credible in the engineering and transport sector. A proposal has been tabled for a connecting line from HS1 to HS2 called HS4air. The name makes more sense when one remembers that HS3 is the putative trans-Pennine route and the new proposal will also link Heathrow and Gatwick with a high speed (fifteen-minute) shuttle, thus allowing them effectively to operate as one airport.

The line would re-use the longest straight on the existing railway in Britain, from Ashford to near Gatwick, whence it would tunnel under the airport and the North Downs before paralleling the M25 to Heathrow and HS2. It would cost about £10bn for the 140km line.

HS4air map

Personally, I had always envisaged a London by-pass paralleling the M25 north of London where it could link to the other main radial main lines, but in many ways this new proposal make better sense, and it would offer many parts of the provincial U.K. vastly improved access not only to the airports but potentially the continent too. We might even end up with something that looked like an emergent network.

This is the kind of thinking that has long been present on the continent – hence the possibility to those trips that I described above. Unfortunately, it is much rarer to see this kind of vision in the U.K. and it deserves to be taken seriously. It would be good to see some serious efforts being put into improving the options for those who live beyond London – but given that approval will presumably lie with Westminster, I’m not going to hold my breath.