Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Big problems in miniature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Above and below: The work of Dominic Burraud

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Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Petitioning the European Parliament in Brussels

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The view from my seat. Guy Verhofstadt straight ahead…

On 2nd October I travelled to Brussels to hear my petition debated by the European Parliament petitions committee (PETI).

On occasions like this, the anxiety still jangles away unpleasantly in the background, but I managed to get myself to Brussels (and find a decent lunch!) I walked the mile to the Parliament, and despite a forecast of fine weather, this being Belgium, it rained on me…

I arrived in good time, and was met by members of the EP secretariat, who got me rapidly through security and into the chamber, which was in the form of a mini-hemicycle. I had expected to be sat somewhere towards the rear – but no: petitioners are seated on the floor of the chamber, along with MEPs and Commission representatives. Luckily I was familiar with most of the technology from my visits to the EP in Strasbourg.

Despite running early when I arrived, the debate did fall behind time – mostly because of the arrival of some of the EP ‘big guns’, notably Guy Verhofstadt (Lead on Brexit) and Antonio Tajani (former President of EP). Verhofstadt is never one to be brief, and he was still going well after the time petitioners were due to be heard.

As the time I had been given for my contribution came and went, I began to wonder whether I would get my chance before needing to head back to Midi to catch my Eurostar. In the event, my ‘caretaker’ managed to get my speech brought forward and I eventually spoke at about 17h20.

I got a round of applause, and as I was leaving the building, one of the British MEPs rushed out and congratulated me on my speech. So it seemed to go down well.

I have included the text of my speech below the photos.

Having watched, and taught, EU affairs for many years, this was a great experience. I can only say that anyone who doubts the value of European co-operation should watch the webcasts of such proceedings.

While this is admittedly a committee rather than the main chamber, proceedings are calm, unassuming and tinged with good humour. Those present seem to have few pretensions, and it is perhaps worth looking up the background a few of them, such as:

• Dolors Montserrat (Chair)
• Jude Kirton-Darling
• ClaudeMoraes
• Irina Von Wiese
• Christian Allard

When I arrived, the discussion was about how to extent animal welfare controls to laboratory animals and to curb the eating of songbirds in Cyprus. A significant issue. It is hugely varied. It was quite humbling and hugely enthusing to sit amongst such people from all over Europe and be heard and to hear their responses.

PETI hears several petitions at a time, grouped by themes. There were other representations from groups concerned about ex-pat rights and refugees after Brexit – but none other about the position of ‘regular’ British citizens. I am still left with the sense that while there is a lot of concern, no one really knows what to do about us. The Commission position is still that EU citizenship is a product of citizenship of a member-state and it would take a treaty change to alter that. Hence British citizens lose their rights if we leave. But they did not completely rule out a treaty change – huge though that would be – and there were a number of calls from MEPs for European citizenship to assume an identity independent from national ones. That would be contentious.

It is worth noting that PETI does not count numbers of signatures before admitting a petition. I was worried that mine only had a few hundred signatures – but there was one heard earlier in the session that had only THREE. It is the strength of the case that counts. And the ability to sit in a hearing and present one’s case is of course, conspicuous by its absence from the procedures in Westminster. While sitting there, I could not help but think that it will be an utter tragedy if Britons’ voices cease to be heard at the end of this month, or indeed at any point.

The meeting was web-cast and is available here.

  • Beginning at 15h57’50”
  • My speech is at 17h21’25”
  • There is a Commission response to my points from one of Michel Barnier’s team at 17h47’47”
  • Important point at 17:55’55” Where the representative says that the EC is not giving up on the existing Withdrawal Agreement despite what BJ says.
  • There is debate from the Committee at 17:57’50 and an important (but probably little-known point) about the cost of passports at 18h03’52. (Why does a British passport cost nearly FIVE TIMES the EU average for people claiming naturalisation?)
  • The section ends at around 18h14′.
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I don’t normally do selfies, but here I am just before going into the EP…

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Text of my speech:

Thank you for admitting my petition, and for giving me the opportunity to address you today.

Should Brexit happen, British citizens will in effect be stripped of their European citizenship. For many, this will be against their deeply-held wishes, and represents in effect the oppression of that group by its own government, similar in style if not degree, to events that often provoke moral outrage when they happen elsewhere in the world.

While accommodation will have to be found for nationals living in each other’s countries, pro-European Britons remaining resident in the UK will be the most disadvantaged group. Our rights and abilities to function in the rest of the EU risk being severely curtailed after Brexit.

As can be seen from the outpouring of pro-EU feeling in the UK, this is a greatly significant matter for many millions of us. It represents the theft of a deeply-important part of our identities by our own government and our peers. Our lives will be not only practically but culturally and emotionally diminished as a result. I have seen and experienced at first hand the deep anguish that this is causing.

Particularly for us islanders, whose history and geography have always set us slightly apart from the European mainstream, this is extremely important. It matters greatly to us that we can look our fellow Europeans straight in the eye and say “we are part of this project too”.

When it comes to resolving this issue, it is noticeable that our own administrations have had nothing whatsoever of substance to say to us for the past three years. We have become invisible; the daily rhetoric about the “will of the people” makes absolutely no reference to our wishes. As one commentator put it, “We are being written out of our own futures”. In short, the British government simply does not know what to do about us, and it is all too evident that the new UK administration cares even less than the last one did.

It is also very clear that Britons who are in favour of Brexit care not one iota for our welfare. They see this as a zero-sum victory for their views, and the likely consequences of this are not encouraging. I live in the constituency of the Home Secretary, and have stood on the streets of that constituency, experiencing the hatred of some Brexiters towards Remainers.

Guy Verhofstadt has argued that the lives of ordinary Europeans should not be harmed by Brexit. Whatever the political future, geographically and culturally speaking, Britons are still Europeans – and the lives of European-thinking Britons will be harmed by the actions of a minority of our fellows. I argue that the wider European community should not be prepared to let this happen, and should do whatever it can to mitigate the impact.

I maintain that should Brexit happen, and the U.K. becomes in effect just another external country from the EU’s perspective, it will be no business whatsoever of the UK government, what recognition and treatment the EU chooses to dispense to people within the territories of its own member-states.

I therefore call upon the EU to create a status – perhaps “associate citizen” – that would recognise this unique group of disadvantaged former EU citizens and provide them with as many as possible of their former rights whenever they are within EU27 countries. My petition sets out a number of possible dimensions of this. I suggest that this need not compromise any other citizenship arrangements either in the EU or the UK, and I urge the EU to act, unilaterally if necessary, to implement it.

I realise that there would be costs to doing this, and therefore it would be reasonable for those to be at least in part recovered. An application charge (and perhaps other checks) could also test the genuineness of the application – but I would urge you to implement any such system in a way that does not exclude those on low incomes. The EU has a great record on promoting equality and will surely recognise the importance of this. Again, I submit that such procedures would be nothing whatsoever to do with the UK government.

As someone who has been engaged for many years in European education in the UK, I urge you seriously to consider such moves, not least because they will help preserve a European consciousness in the UK during the dark times outside the EU. Should Brexit happen, providing this identity-option would be very significant in terms of reconciling British Europeans to an unenviable situation, and helping to heal the rift in our society – as something similar through the Good Friday Agreement has helped resolve such issues in Northern Ireland. An act of faith such as this can only encourage the U.K. to rejoin in due course.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Morges please!

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

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

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

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The main street.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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The tulip festival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mont Blanc, seen from Morges.

 

Opinion & Thought, Travel

Coming home

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On Eurostar in The Tunnel

I’ve always found coming home difficult. Perhaps it is because for me, home is such an important place. I’ve heard it said that for most of us, it is the one place in the world where we can shape things more or less to our own, unconditional liking. And for us that seems to mean something rather at odds with the norms of the country in which we live. Of course it is well-known that part of the pleasure of going away is the renewed appreciation of home that it brings when you return; perhaps with it can come a resolution to do things a little differently, a little better, inspired by what you saw when you were away… It probably depends on where you’ve been: perhaps sometimes you are just relieved to be back?

But home is a nested concept. At its most intimate, it is the specific building that you inhabit, and in our case we have an extra layer, namely our specific part of the old school house that we share. In another sense, during our recent week in Switzerland, we never left our European home in the first place, something reinforced by the fact that we know that country and a few of its people well enough to consider it home from home.
What gives me the problem is the bit in the middle: the national level. And that is, of course, all the more difficult at the moment given the current state of play in this country.

I think it stems from my thoroughly English up-bringing, at a time between the 1960s and 1980s when European countries were nowhere near as integrated as they have since become, and the sense of superiority that it is now evident has been a part of this nation’s problem was barely identified. It was just an unspoken part of the national narrative.

As I travelled abroad much more often, more widely and for purposes other than conventional holidays, it became clear to me that Britain was not always the enviable place we had always been led to believe. Other places do some things as well, if not better. It is only logical: why should one small island have a monopoly on The Best? It’s nothing other than our own particular national myth – but it seemed so deeply embedded that it was almost invisible. Perhaps that’s the whole point.

Yet as so often, empty vessels make the most noise. I fear that the drum-banging that many in Britain still seem to feel they need to engage in, is a subconscious reaction to the above fact. I wonder how many stop to think – or care – about how this appears from the outside. We spent a week travelling across borders between France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Sometimes it was only cursory – such as the evening we had a meal in a Greek restaurant in Germany – a mere 15 minutes’ drive from our friends’ home. The whole thing was unremarkable in the extreme, now that the Schengen Agreement covers all of those countries.

Why, then, on reaching the Eurostar check-in at Lille Europe station, do things so noticeably change? The first things one sees are large boards detailing all of the things that are prohibited on the train. These were followed by notices instructing visitors from Canada, Australia, The USA, Japan and South Korea that they are “granted” leave to visit for six months (how condescending), but that they are not entitled to work or any access to state funds while they are there. Welcome to Britain! As they are only in English, I wonder how many South Koreans take any notice.

One then passes in front of stony-faced Border Force staff (notice the choice of wording in the name) and endures the ritual humiliation of removing watches, belts, loose change and personal technology while struggling to haul luggage up into the X-ray scanners.
Once through this obstacle course, one is assaulted by repeated loud-speaker instructions decreeing insistently what one should and should not do at every moment of one’s progress onto the train. At every point, progress is micro-managed by Eurostar staff. It is not surprising that people start to behave like harassed sheep.

On the train, the same recorded and live loudspeaker instructions persist; perhaps they were just trying to be helpful, but how many people really need to be told to press the door-open button in order to open the door? On arrival at somewhere like Ashford, one hears urgent-sounding announcements telling people that they are not yet in London. At least they are now tri-lingual.

It doesn’t take much to notice the change of culture that such behaviours communicate. One is left with the impression that Britain is still more about keeping people out, and if not that, then treating them like idiots whose every thought and action need to be controlled. I think it is an unconscious extension of the way the authorities and elites in this country perceive the rest of the population. Britain is fundamentally about control, not liberty – even if, thus far, it has generally been achieved by ‘soft’ means.

I have also been told recently that the reason the British government does not want regional services through the Tunnel is that it wants to be able to control entry points closely – and that means keeping them at a few specific places. Who knows? Elsewhere, facilities make it increasingly easy for people to come and go as they please; why should Britain be any different?

I can only wonder at the mindset that still has this view of Britain in the modern world. Where does this assumption that the U.K. must be bulwarked against the outside world come from, in a way that no other European nation seems to think? Just what is it that we have that they are supposedly all intent on stealing? And why do the authorities seem to believe that people in this country need to be controlled and told what to think and do at every turn, rather than liberated to live their own lives?

When I mention such things in conversation, the reply is often that it is “very important” that the country keeps “undesirables” out. Well really? So much more than any other country – some of which are quite possibly far more attractive to migrants than the U.K. And at the cost of the freedom to move of the rest of us? Who told us this? Answer: the same people who put gave the Border FORCE its aggressive name.

From what one overhears in places like Lille station, plenty of other Britons feel about this as I do. And I when I asked one of the French security guards (in French) how he felt about subjecting visitors to Britain to such treatment, he gave me bemused shrug. Those Britons who are in the know can see the idiocy of this mindset: it is the authorities whose thinking is lagging, not us plebs.

At least Eurostar now has interiors that can hold a light to the TGV and ICE – so we needn’t feel quite so like second-class citizens while under the sea. But in between getting off the train and reaching our little haven, we had to cross what increasingly feels like hostile territory, parts of South-East England which despite their physical proximity to the continent, are populated by those who can’t or won’t see what we had just experienced – and perhaps never do. Those who can’t see that Britain’s increasingly scruffy, congested and sometimes-aggressive public realm is not “just like everywhere else – only better”. And we all know what they, and their attitudes, have done to the country.

Then we got home to our apartment, which increasingly feels like a retreat, a little bubble of Europe-inspired sanity adrift on a sea of hostile, xenophobic madness. It’s not anger, but sadness that makes us feel like this – because after all, ultimately, there is no place like home.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Snacking for the soul…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can’t be done

shires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Midas Touch

mt

I think the current political turmoil in Britain has revealed the extent to which there is no longer much shared consensus at all about the fundamental values of the nation. Hitherto, there somehow existed an unspoken sense that beneath the normal divergences of view and action, there was a greater feeling for the collective interest – dare I say – that we were “all in it together”. Even if one did not agree with individual perspectives, one could always assume that the fundamental  national values of enlightened shared interest were still there. Now I’m not so sure; maybe it was a naive assumption in the first place – the various British clans have always looked after their own first. Perhaps a better interpretation of a nation is a rag-bag of various saints and sinners forcibly pulled together by the diktats of history and geography, somehow rubbing along together?

Britain feels, more than ever before, like a place that is being run by people whose priorities, indeed core world-view, are utterly opposed to mine, which it was perhaps too easy to assume that everyone else actually basically shared. While Brexit is the issue that has perhaps shed more light on this than anything else, it is by no means the only expression of it.

Of more fundamental concern are their basic priorities and principles, specifically the importance and nature of ‘wealth’ and the trade-off between individual and collective wellbeing. Maybe it is just a sign of middle-class ghettoism, but I have always considered it a ‘given’ that monetary wealth is merely the mechanism by which people acquire the things that they really value in life – and for allocating scarce resources – rather than an end in itself. It is perhaps too easy to believe that ‘everyone knows’ that money and power do not bring happiness – but maybe they really don’t?

I am increasingly of the view that those who tend to elbow their way into the most influential positions in society are amongst such people: they see power and wealth as bringing personal opportunity rather than collective responsibility. One individual above all embodies this at the present time…

In my own value system it is self-evident that one cannot (and should not) ignore the well-being of others, even those one disagrees with, if not for more altruistic reasons, then because it tends to impinge on one’s own. But there seem to be plenty these days who either do not understand that view – or do not care. Gaining sufficient muscle, they seem to think, is all that is needed to proof oneself from any of the ill effects of one’s poor treatment of others.

We could perhaps look to history to test whether this is actually the case, but it’s perhaps also too easy to allow hindsight to cloud our judgement: while the various terrors of the Twentieth Century were indeed ultimately repelled, and in much of Europe at least, the century ended relatively peacefully, the same was not true for many of the individuals who suffered appallingly during their often-short lives. Salvation did not come. So I think we should be wary of believing that the current instability will somehow rectify itself in the fullness of time, simply because that happened in the past. Who can say with confidence that certain Eastern European countries are not headed towards another era of totalitarianism – or that the U.K.’s travails will “come out alright in the end?” That is a prediction only made more difficult because the definition of ‘alright’ is not shared to begin with.

It is all too possible to destroy the things we supposedly value by mistakenly assuming that others hold them precious too. Brexit is indeed an example of that: there is a significant risk that it will end up destroying the sovereign nation that it purports to defend. I saw the same in the education sector: the drive for greater ‘efficiency’ ended up destroying the very things that education is really about in the first place – once again, the sacrifice of the valuable to the measurable.

Yet the principle is also much more widely applicable too: it seems to me that the entire capitalist system that supposedly exists to generate wealth and improve life is now in serious danger of making exactly the same error.

The immediate cause of this introspection has been developments in the small part of eastern England where I live: a historic market town of about 5000 people, with around 300 listed buildings some dating back to the 14th Century, and a delightful rural setting. It is about as unlike the popular stereotype of this county as one could imagine. Yet in the past few years we have faced (and continue to face) a number of corporate threats that could destroy the very quality that we who live here all value:

• A major road upgrade nearby that would have torn through some of the most tranquil countryside remaining in the county (now thankfully re-routed).
• A seemingly unending flow of planning applications for large numbers of houses to be built around our town and in the surrounding countryside.
• A plan that refuses to die for an un-needed waste incinerator on an old airfield 2km upwind of the town.
• The extension of a large gravel quarry to within 100 metres of the town and its historic buildings, and the subsequent desecration of some of the most attractive surrounding landscapes.
• At the same time as these developments, the further paring back of social and infrastructure provision such as the threat of closure of our local libraries (which reached the national press, now hopefully resisted), and the cutting back of the bus service (still pending).

In each case, we are faced with parties who claim that what they propose is necessary or essential. One wonders what criteria they are using. In each case, the principle justifications are economic – the gravel is needed, the road is needed, the incinerator is needed, the houses are needed, the library and bus savings are needed. In each case, it is possible to argue the opposite – and that investment and the preservation of the local quality of life in an otherwise over-developed county are also needed. But mysteriously, that never seems to carry equal weight. One wonders what the ‘need’ actually is – and if it is really anything more than the need for companies to make profits or local government to cut costs – mostly at other people’s expense.

We are told that the emissions from the incinerator will be insignificant, that the quarry landscape will be restored (after twenty years of noise and dust), that the houses are required for the county to meet its targets. And yet when one argues for even mitigation measures (we are not all NIMBYs), all of a sudden the need for that somehow ‘cannot be demonstrated’: the housing development that slipped through the net somehow cannot ‘justify’ the extra care taken to ensure that what is created is an enhancement of our historic place rather than a bastardisation. The developer is not obliged to consider the impact of a 20% increase in population on demand for medical and educational facilities, or to mitigate the extra traffic that will use our narrow streets – let alone the impact on a fairly close-nit community. They were not even taken to task for the factual inaccuracies and misrepresentation in their initial application, while bodies such as the Highways Agency, who might have objected, appear simply to have rubber-stamped the scheme.

The need can never somehow be demonstrated, either, for things that would bring genuine benefits – the traffic-calming of our town centre, the enhancement rather than reduction of our local bus service, the provision of better broadband, greater support for community initiatives. The answer is always that there is no money available for such things. It’s not difficult to see the trend: vested interests will ‘demonstrate the need’ for anything that adds to their profits or smooth-functioning, but nothing that will add to their costs or work-load. Those costs are externalised, and left for communities like ours – across the nation as a whole – to pick up through the erosion of quality of life, while the vested interests laugh all the way to the bank.

It is all the more galling when one realises that some of those ‘interests’ are public bodies who exist, one might presume, to protect the public interest. Yet they seem to be run by people, and with cultures that ape private business rather than civic values. The libraries were threatened by the County Council. The quarry extension is being supported – unbelievably – by The Environment Agency on the grounds that the extraction of 13 million tonnes of gravel will permit implementation of a questionable flood management scheme. The housing development was permitted – over the heads of local representation – by the district council, which also resolutely neglects its responsibilities for providing either the planning enforcement or infrastructure enhancements that might offset the worst of the resultant damage. It in turn blames the government (of the same colour) for Austerity.

Time and again, such bodies fail to protect the public interest because they, too, have been forced to run along strict economic principles which decree that anything financially loss-making cannot be justified, no matter what the wider cost-benefit situation. (More charitably, they also seem bound in so much red tape that it is an easy task for nimble developers to run rings round them). It is also why the first action of the local secondary school on becoming an Academy has been to divest itself of responsibility for the community swimming pool in its grounds. It is why the bus service is being threatened with cuts: corporate profitability trumps social need every time. And more widely still, it is why the quality of everything from the places we inhabit to the quality of health and education provision is being diminished because those who make the critical decisions are more swayed by personal gain and a narrow, monetarised definition of benefit, than one that really helps the population in the round.

I used to argue that these issues would prove self-rectifying, once those same decision makers realised that they were not immune from the impact: they still have to drive their expensive cars along the same shoddy roads, and they are still dependent on voters and customers. And then someone pointed out that a good few of them now travel by private jet and helicopter…

It is a legitimate argument that historically, adverse trends do tend to elicit counter-reactions and eventually correct themselves. Empires from the Romans to the Nazis were ultimately cut down by their tendency to over-reach themselves. Push people too far and they do tend to resist – or rebel.

It seems to me that our entire social-economic system is in danger of reaching a similar extreme: by defining wellbeing in purely monetary terms, it is increasingly destroying the very things that people actually value. Our living quarters, culture and wider welfare are being sacrificed at the altar of supposed wealth creation. And yet when it comes to spreading the resultant wealth around, it suddenly (but perhaps not surprisingly) becomes much more difficult to ‘demonstrate the need’. Our county perceived a ‘need’ to cut libraries – but not the tens of thousands spent on private health care for its executives. Academised schools perceive the need to restrain or cut teachers’ salaries – but simultaneously to enhance those of their managers; how (less cynically) are such conflicting ‘needs’ to be explained, let alone reconciled? The biggest example of all of such contradictory behaviour is, of course, the damage being done to the global natural environment.

It seems there is nothing that the great god ‘business’ will not destroy in the pursuit of its own narrow self-interest – including the things that brought it success in the first place. This is not really surprising since companies are, by their very nature utterly  self-interested and usually short-termist. But at very least this fact might support the existence of genuinely effective counter-balancing forces; what is more concerning is that the civic bodies that existed to do this have either been seriously weakened or have gone native.

I think it is now reasonable to suggest that in the West, commercial and other selfish-individualistic forces are out of control and in civic terms, desperately need to be tamed. The supposed pursuit of individual liberty is at risk of destroying that very same thing in the collective sense. If the collateral damage is the destruction of the very thing one supposedly values in the first place, then the system is not working, and one can only wonder whether a fundamentally different approach might have been wiser all along.