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

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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

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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.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Saffron Modern

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Britain’s popular image of itself has always been so intimately connected with its past that it has always struggled with the concept of Modern. Even when the ripples of the Bauhaus belatedly hit these shores, those buildings that emerged in that style were largely built using traditional techniques, and failed to adopt the forward-looking philosophy that it represented.

The Brutalist experience of the 1960s and 1970s hardly endeared modern architecture to popular opinion either – and the interventions of Prince Charles and others caused a definitive move back towards pseudo-traditional architecture across the country. While modern design has since enjoyed something of a re-birth of interest, as always, bulk developers responded slowly to changing tastes, and we have been left with a four-decade legacy of pastiche, a mish-mash of superficial, confused historic references only made worse by the pressures to build both at higher densities and to accommodate high car ownership.

The effect, far from enhancing the country’s traditions, has been to blight every place it touched with a sprawl of cloned, characterless, flimsy, disneyesque fake-heritage. And its effect is not only visual: by creating a imagined past, one effectively distorts the population’s sense of rootedness in its real past: a toothless re-engineering of a false arcadia that only devalues the real thing.

There is plenty of good modern architecture in Britain; it is just not generally accessible to the public. But things are slowly changing again, and the bulk developers are gradually realising that the public is more open than hitherto, to a type of contemporary design that takes its very human inspiration from experiences particularly in The Netherlands and Scandinavia, to create modern environments that are human in scale and still respect their heritage settings. I would go further, and suggest that it is far more respectful to genuine history not to imitate it badly, but to have the courage to build something ‘of its time’ in the way all those historic buildings were in their day.

I recently visited an excellent test-case of this theory. In the search for inspiration for the large development pending in my own small, historic town, I visited The Avenue in Saffron Walden. SW is a very attractive East Anglian town in north Essex, about 25km south of Cambridge. It has a fine collection of medieval buildings and an extensive conservation area. Into this, Pollard Thomas Edwards architects inserted an imaginative development of 75 homes, on a mature site in the south of the town. They chose to produce a range of apartments, terraced and detached housing and sheltered housing that is contemporary while strongly echoing the local vernacular. It won an RIBA regional prize in 2016.

The architects have made great use of the avenue of mature lime trees on the site to provide a public path through the development, while grouping many of the houses round courtyards that diminish the dominance of road vehicles within the setting. The buildings are credibly eco-sensitive and have provided a popular new residential district which even this self-avowedly traditionalist town has welcomed openly. A short film about the development can be seen on the architect’s website here.

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The clever use of standardised components in a variety or permutations reduced costs, while not compromising the observed individuality and distinctiveness of the buildings. Walking through the development, one gains a sense of continuity with the ancient town around, and a strong sense that a characterful ‘place’ has been successfully created – the lack of which is often a criticism levelled at modern designs.

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If such a development can work in a place like Saffron Walden, I don’t see why it shouldn’t work anywhere – and one is left with a strong sense that this is an architectural intervention that will stand the test of time, to become an integral part of the town’s evolution and heritage, unlike the pastiche shoe-boxes that remain developers’ more standard fare. It would be great to see this kind of imaginative thinking being used more widely in Britain. It might even start to persuade the general population that modern design is not inevitably terrible.

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Eco-litism

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I’ve just ‘treated’ myself to this year’s Lacoste polo shirt. I buy one each year, and never one to neglect good value, I always buy from the outlet shop which I’m fortunate to have five miles down the road. The outrageous for the merely pricey; last year’s colours, but who cares?

I like this item because the colours are much more appealing than the dull navy-blues, maroons and taupes that one finds in British shops. I don’t know how they do it, but the French seem to have an eye for just the right shades. These polos are 100% cotton, they last well, too, and for me are a nod to a certain kind of Euro-chic that brings back memories of happy times – for they seem to be as close as continental men come to a summer uniform. It’s the only item of outwardly-branded clothing that I will wear.

But what they don’t do on the continent, it seems, is make a social statement, which is the main purpose of wearing brands in Britain. I haven’t come across anywhere else where using the ‘right’ brand supposedly makes you a superior person – or where a certain sector of society has needed to adopt certain brands (think Burberry) as a counter-statement. While there is definitely respect for quality, I just don’t get the impression that the continentals attach social status or exclusivity to them in the  way the British do. What we are seeing here is yet another expression of Britain’s still class-bound society, that just doesn’t seem to exist in quite the same way elsewhere in Europe.

One might argue that it doesn’t matter too much when it comes to a polo shirt. But it seems there is nothing that the British will not misappropriate in order to make a class statement. The latest is eco-credentials. I have got into the habit of buying Enki magazine, a new-ish interiors thing, which is full of floaty, scandi-blond cool flaunting the ultra-eco-chic that is definitely to-die-for – with the death in question coming to the bank account of anyone who isn’t a fully-subscribed member of The One Percent.  It portrays a very appealing lifestyle, with a generous side-helping of clear conscience, flaunts products gorgeous in every way except the price tag.

What’s more, a planning application has just gone in to build such a property in the grounds of the large house next door. I’ll be excited to see it go up (they are nice people who are building it), should it survive local conservatism and Britain’s sclerotic planning process. What bothers me about this is not the ideal (let alone the aesthetic, which really is lovely) – but the fact that sustainability is being turned into just another ultra-expensive fashion accessory for the very privileged.

A week ago, I sat opposite regional executives of the national conglomerate that is going to build a new housing development on the edge of our historic town. Given that it was forced upon us, we are trying to ensure that it is as positive a thing as possible. We presented them with a vision for an eco-friendly, contemporary-styled new quarter for the town, complete with ideas for renewable energy, water recycling, passive solar heating and reduced car use. I hope I’m wrong, but the expressions on their faces  suggested that we are not going to get it.

So we see a situation where the wealthy can blow vast budgets (as several have in this neighbourhood recently) buying the latest in earth-friendliness, but when it comes to providing the same for the mere mortals who buy mass-produced housing, what is on offer is the same boring, resource hungry boxes, where the nearest thing to sustainability is a power lead to the garage to allow the owner-to retro-fit a charging point for an electric car if they wish, before they drive out and add to the local congestion. At the end of the day, it seems the bonuses of the executives of such companies trump the need  to address the green agenda on a mass (and hence more cost-effective) basis.

And so something that ought now to be delivered as an essential to the whole population has become a cachet-statement for the small elite who can afford domestic geothermal heating systems and smart energy management tech in their minimalist weekend homes in Suffolk. I wouldn’t mind a bet that some of those executive bonuses in the construction industry are being used to install just such systems in their own homes.

Yet again deeply embedded British social attitudes conspire to maintain not only material but also attitudinal differences between the haves and the have nots, even when it comes to something that should be as egalitarian and universal as the green agenda. Unfortunately, despite the easy-living ethos of Enki, this is morality for the very wealthy.

Sprezzatura is all about the good things in life – of which I consider green living to be one. But its aspiration is democratic. This kind of elitism it most certainly does not support, and I’m heartily tired of the way our society misuses such things as statements of social superiority. For all our protestations of equality, this is still a nation deeply divided not only by its £2000 boiling-water taps – but more profoundly by the snobbery that misappropriates them.

And yes, I know 100% cotton polo shirts are ecologically-dubious too…

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Sartoria

The cultural politics of socks.

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Trying to escape the big political battles for the soul of Britain for a while, I retreated into the delights of small things. Remembering that God is in the Details, I decided to sample the products of The London Sock Company. I came across it – yes – through its social media advertising, which dangled an enticingly eggy-saffrony yellow pair of its eponymous product.

A quick scan of the comments on said post revealed a large dose of British male incredulity that anyone in their right mind would pay in the £10-£20 range for a pair of socks. But having sampled the wonders of Bresciani from Mes Chausettes Rouges and Loding’s and Boggi’s own brands (for which you pay considerably less on the continent than here), I have come round to the opinion that a decent housing for one’s feet is an investment that pays day-long returns, if only because the wider range of sizes on offer than in chain-stores means fewer sags, slips and holed toes.

I regret to say the ultra-fine offerings from those Italian and French companies didn’t stand up well to the day-to-day demands of a British man for whom ‘stocking’ his wardrobe with one-wear-only quantities of such refinement is beyond his budget. (I do note, however, that Mes Chaussettes Rouges is now stocking an ‘extra-durable’ range, so maybe I wasn’t the only one…)

A pair of the bright yellows was duly ordered, and arrived impressively quickly, enclosed in a recyclable card envelope and nicely presented in tissue paper, with the further insert that gives quality new socks their pleasing scrunch – even if not the little cloth draw-bag that MCR despatches in. Who said this is just about something as mundane as keeping your trotters warm?

While they are largely made of the same fine fil d’ecosse cotton as the Italian products, LSC’s range mostly have some synthetic content in the heel and toe, which is probably sensible. And attract favourable comments, they did.

A couple of more orders have followed, including some nice ‘dusk blues’ the Bordeaux jacquard shown below.

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And yet, on reading the blurb on the company’s website, it struck me that even here I can’t escape the reach of politics. Brexit may even stretch to our feet: as previously mentioned, LSC uses the same materials and manufacturing as its Italian and French inspiration: surely a clear case of European cultural diffusion. It is, however, manufacturing in Portugal, which I assume is considerably cheaper than Italy. How will the price and availability of the product be affected by Brexit, let alone the fortunes of the small company that took the risk?

I’ve also just finished reading Harry Mount’s 2012 book How England Made the English. He takes a more sympathetic view of these islands and their inhabitants than I tend to – but even he acknowledges that, in general, the British lag behind many of their neighbours when it comes to the finer things in life.

Intriguingly, he (sort of) attributes our failure to appreciate fine socks to our not having been invaded for so long. Property, he says, is such a safe investment in a very secure country that people have traditionally sunk large portions of their income into it, which in turn left them with less to spend on life’s enjoyable fripperies:

“Because [the continentals] aren’t spending all their money on their houses, they have higher disposable incomes. They have tended to rent more, and to spend more on themselves and the bella figura – the sort of spending that the badly dressed, self-denying, puritanical English have historically looked down on as self-indulgent…and so England ends up as a world leader in chain retail shops, specialising in selling, amongst other things, cheap clothes – another reason we don’t look as good as our continental cousins.”

Recent contact with a Brexiter with whom I occasionally converse gravitated towards a similar topic, but drew forth the view that “We can produce everything we need here”. He was referring food rather than socks – but the principle is the same.

Although we haven’t been remotely self-sufficient in food for decades, I suppose in theory we could become so again – but would you really want the kind of beef-and-potato diet that would result? (Even British wheat is pretty marginal when it comes to bread-making). Personally I would rather head in the opposite direction and enhance further the range of other delights we have on offer. True, we have good dairy – and presumably some of the new-found artisan products would endure – but would this country really want to do without the vast array of foods we can now choose from? While I have found a couple of decent mozzarella makers in the U.K. we still don’t do a good line on our own buffalo milk, nor apricots, oranges, peaches or even tomatoes. Let alone pineapples, coffee – or cotton.

So it occurred to me, while reading that book and talking to that uncomprehending man, that I suppose my tastes have become so thoroughly Europeanised (we also resisted the lure of a huge mortgage, and live in an apartment) that giving them up would be – while possible – a significant dent in the quality of life that Brexit is supposedly going to enhance.  “It’s about freedom!” cried my interlocutor; “By depriving me of mine?” I replied.

While the freedom to buy Illy coffee and fancy socks may not be about to solve world peace, they nonetheless can bring a little colour to the life even of an Englishman, in the way that the old insular ways did not. And it’s certainly much-needed in the current political climate. One could even argue that the cultural convergence that they represent is a force for international good: despite my preferences, I just don’t see myself as a “Citizen of Nowhere”, in fact quite the opposite.

But even in one’s choice of footwear, it seems, politics intrudes.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why I think the education system is to blame for our pathetic politicians.

It seems to be a rare point of national consensus that our politicians are failing us, even if we disagree on how. It might seem very unfair to criticise people who put themselves forward for the thankless task of trying to keep everyone on-side in a disparate nation of sixty-plus million individuals, but my views on this have changed, and I suspect many other people’s have too.

In the past, I accepted the notion that those in charge generally had the best interests of the nation at heart, even when I profoundly disagreed with their chosen means of delivering them. I am no longer sure that that is the case: we seem to have a generation of politicians who are rather too torn between doing their democratic job, and preserving the considerable personal benefits that derive from doing that within the British political system; it should not be a dilemma. That interpretation may well be excessively charitable: much of the impasse over Brexit and all that has followed seems clearly driven by personal and party interests, rather than those of the nation. That is hardly news – commentators all across the nation are saying as much.

I tend to exclude from this the dilemma facing those MPs whose personal inclinations over Brexit are in conflict with the way their constituencies voted on the matter, though even here, it is very possible that the resultant paralysis has as much to do with self-interest as anything else. I also can’t resist mentioning that I have yet to hear of a pro-Brexit MP who is beating themselves up because they represent a pro-remain constituency…

Be all that as it may, it may seem excessively harsh to blame the situation on the poor, unsuspecting education system – yet this has not prevented many people from attributing much of the country’s predicament to the failure to educate people properly. As a former teacher, I am hesitant at accepting such sweeping accusations, and yet having thought about it more, I am afraid I conclude that education does have responsibility here, if not in the direct way that those critics perhaps think.

First, the bit where I disagree: Brexit and the resultant attitudes are not the result of a failure to teach compulsory European Studies. At school age, such subjects largely go over people’s heads; I taught the subject at ‘A’ Level, and even then it was hard to make it resonate with many students. (In the end, I took them to Strasbourg, and sat them in the Parliament for a day. After that, their attitudes had markedly changed – but we cannot do that for all children.) Steering national attitudes is a much more subtle, gradual and difficult thing than that, in any case – even assuming it is a legitimate thing to attempt.

No, the failure of education is more profound than that – and also, I believe less properly-understood. A constant battle in my teaching career was my advocacy of “learning for learning’s sake”, against a considerable and powerful majority who saw it in much more instrumental terms – a confected process by which children were made to jump hoops that eventually might result in their getting a decent job, which by no coincidence happened also to provide cheap childcare for their parents, while delivering good career outcomes for teachers and their schools. One almost got the impression that any real cognitive development that happened along the way was little more than a fortunate side-effect.

But learning for learning’s sake is not the ivory-tower ideal that is often portrayed. It is through learning without ulterior motive that one’s intellectual powers are best developed, free from the distractions of how they might need to be ‘useful’. It is the only way in which learning can be the truly impartial process that comes close to the real meaning of the word ‘academic’.

What is more, it is only through such a process that the really important aspect of education can be maximised, namely its residue. It is what Einstein meant when he said “Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. The message remains right: the really important thing about education is not the cramming of facts, the learning of skills, nor even the certificates one gains or the income it eventually delivers – and certainly not the league-table position it delivers to the school – but the state of mind it creates.

It is this that the education system has increasingly neglected. Such abstracts were perceived as meaningless against the seemingly more tangible matters of exam results, employability, let alone school league tables. As education increasingly became little more than the training in hoop-jumping that such exigencies required, something of profound value was lost – to the point that we now have entire generations that not only lack such a perspective but don’t even know that they do. Finishing my school education in the early 1980s, I consider that I myself caught little more than the tail-end of the earlier perspective.

When education is shorn of its higher ideas, it does indeed become little more than training: it produces people who, while they may be highly skilled in specific fields, lack – sometimes to a worrying degree – a larger perspective on the world. They also often lack qualities like patience, impartiality or empathy. Everything is focused on self-realisation. The general population’s role in the current political emergency comes from its propensity for woolly, self-referential thinking, restricted knowledge, egocentric perspectives, impatience with diverse points of view and a failure to accept that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Those who become teachers then often perpetuate their own experience of mechanical teaching simply because they themselves lack the nuances that those abstract qualities cultivate – and so the cycle continues.

Such qualities are, however, no less necessary now than they ever were; one might argue even more so as the purely manual aspects of life have continued to decline. Somewhere in the subconscious, I believe there is a vague awareness of this void – but it is not something that a short remedial action can alter: it is something cultivated by breathing the air of a healthy educational environment (and I mean that in the widest sense, to include the home and other environments) throughout one’s early development, and indeed indefinitely.

The present education system has attempted to address this issue by focusing on window-dressing. In my experience, a major part of school culture involved learning how to talk oneself up, no matter how justified it was or wasn’t. I witnessed many school assemblies where pupils were exhorted to see life as a “challenge”, a competition to “win”. I witnessed examples of this where pupils were encouraged to “work on their personal brand”, to polish their personal statement to the point where they reflected more what the recipients were deemed to want to hear than anything accurate about the author.

In other words, for several generations now have bought into the world of hype – and they have encouraged the people of this country to believe that glossy marketing is more important than any substance that might lie behind it. What’s more, the teachers didn’t just preach this to their pupils; in many cases it seemed to be how they ran their own careers. I was chided on more than one occasion for “failing to play the game” because I stuck to my academic ideals.

The root of this deception is of course that the primary aim in life is to get what you want from it, no matter how one does it. The truth is an acceptable casualty in this race, as are personal integrity and any more subtle qualities that are hard to demonstrate. Yet it is utterly the antithesis of an educated state of mind, which tends to be restrained, tolerant, enquiring – and modest.

It is not fair to blame this entirely on schools, because in a way they have only been reflecting changes in wider society driven by new media and such like. But it is arguably the case that had education not failed to equip people with better intellectual foundations in the first place, such superficial tendencies might not have gained the traction that they have. The real failure of schools and education is not in specific matters – but in their willingness to endorse such matters and exploit them, rather than making a stand in the name of a more profound integrity. It is this that has brought the nation to a position where very many within it are profoundly ignorant of civic responsibilities, or understanding of how civil society works – politics and constitution included – so busy have they been polishing their own personal brands.

If we have produced a nation in which individual self-realisation is the over-riding aim – and I believe that the majority of the nation now really does believe it believes this – then it is hardly surprising that our politicians behave in the same way. Their duty to the nation is little more than an inconvenience on one’s way to Power and a stellar career; seen in this light, the behaviour of many of them makes much more sense. Personal weakness, ignorance or incompetence no longer need be an impediment to reaching the top in politics, any more than in the many other fields where powerful people make bad decisions based on the hubristic imperative of their personal brands.

I still can’t forget the occasion when I walked in on a local politician whom I had briefed to talk to my students about the principles of democracy and parliamentary representation – and found him telling them instead about how amazing a career politics can be for the ambitious individual.

That we (collectively) get the politicians we deserve is probably true, though the reasons why are subtler than they seem.

(previously posted on my blog Teaching Personally)