Opinion & Thought

Sophistry and the planting of seeds

After over five years of waiting, I’ve finally had a reasoned, informed discussion with a Brexiter. The specifics aren’t important, but it was perhaps significant that the individual (who is not known to me personally) also has a background in education and the exchange did take place on social media. The former provided a little shared ground – but as the discussion developed, it quickly became apparent just how limiting the practicalities of conducting complex debate by such means actually are.

This coincided neatly with both my finishing Tim Harford’s book How to Make the World Add Up and the final proof reading of my own book on Critical Thinking (now begins the hard search for a publisher…)

After several other recent encounters where my attempts to reason carefully with Brexiters ended in yet more mockery and abuse, my concern about the balkanisation of public opinion had not exactly subsided. Whatever our views, it really is not healthy if all we can do is close our ears and call each other nasty names in lieu of searching for an accommodating way forward.

The Sophists were thinkers and orators of ancient Greece. Over time, rhetoric and winning an argument came to dominate reaching the truth (I will leave aside here the deep difficulties within that word…). Sophistry is alive and well in modern society. It seems that our formal politics depend on it – especially in the system we have in the U.K. where the “winner takes all” – and achieving that winning position in both a general election and more widely seems more important than wise (let alone conciliatory) government itself. It hardly sets a good example to society at large… (With this tail well and truly wagging the dog, much of what passes for governance in this country is now, it seems to me, little more than collateral effects of the supremacy battle within the Westminster Bubble).

Social media also seem to thrive on sophistry, if only because they tap into a fundamental human competitiveness and boost it by removing the usual social conventions that might make one keep at least one ‘glove’ on when debating face to face. So often it seems that the real purpose of interaction is to win the argument, rather than find factual accuracy – let alone approach consensus or deeper understanding of another point of view. Maybe I am being hopelessly idealistic here, but it is still a great pity, since more mature use of social media has, I believe, huge potential to boost proper civic debate.

Both Harford’s book and the art of critical thinking in general can perhaps inform the way forward, and even guide our personal conduct and strategy.

It is all too easy to get sucked into sophistry oneself, when operating in a sphere that encourages it. Regularly reminding oneself that ‘winning’ the argument is neither likely nor necessary can help. The chances of fundamentally quashing another view to the point of abandonment are tiny, as is easily appreciated if one reflects on the difficulty one might encounter oneself in conceding the same. People rarely make fundamental changes to their positions except through profound personal experiences – and the chances of a discussion on social media being one are about nil. A little respect simply accepts that one’s opponent will be in the same position, and it is all the more unlikely if those positions really are the product of genuine thought and experience, rather than dogma.

In which case, shifting the objective towards a genuine exploration of the issues and contrasting perspectives is much more likely to be productive. How to do that? My own approach is hopefully to model good practice, for example by:

  • never using ad hominems;
  • always being prepared to look for compromise;
  • trying to find commonality and consensus where it does exist, even outside the debate itself;
  • understanding the difference between fact and interpretation or opinion;
  • trying to address opposing points rather than ignoring or rubbishing them;
  • conceding when one does not have a good answer;
  • maintaining politeness and good humour;
  • firmly asserting one’s credentials without bragging or demeaning the other person;
  • most importantly, explicitly (and if necessary, repeatedly) stating one’s aims and code for the discussion.

I won’t pretend that I always achieve all of this, particularly under fire but it is still, I think, a good aspiration. Sadly, sheer experience suggests that many people are so preconditioned that they can’t respond in kind – but that too does not diminish the aspiration. Retaining the moral high ground is probably still good advice.

In the recent experience, my interlocutor sadly began by dismissing my points and claiming (without any basis) that I had no experience in the subject matter and did not know what I was talking about. Privately, I knew this was ridiculous – but how to prove otherwise without appearing condescending? However, just for once, continued engagement did shift the argument onto more constructive ground and we proceeded to have detailed and lengthy interactions over several days, before agreeing to close it simply due to the practical constraints. It finished courteously.

What did it achieve? Tim Harford points out the importance of curiosity: curious people are more likely to engage with alternative views because their own are subject to modification, whereas the incurious will simply close their ears and blast away. Such flexibility at least makes it more possible to respect and respond to another position even if one does not agree with or adopt it. It also makes a shifting of positions towards greater tolerance or consensus just a little more likely. A recent feature in The Guardian, which has put opponents face to face over a meal has found something similar: given the right conditions, balkanised positions can be eroded and consensus or at least mutual respect found.

Harford suggests that when it comes to real sticking points, it can be better to ask people progressively to elaborate their understanding of their own position, rather than attempting to contradict them. If they cannot, then this self-realisation is more effective than anything one can say oneself. It does not necessarily mean that they will concede openly, of course. In other words, the key to a successful debate is to pay attention not to your own views, but to those of the other, no matter how much you disagree with them.

In the recent discussion, it became clear that the other person was (unsurprisingly) no more likely to shift wholesale to my point of view than I was to hers. I felt there were omissions and contradictions in her stance – ironic given her claim to authority, and precisely a criticism she levelled at mine. I did my best to respond accordingly, though I felt that fewer of my own points were directly addressed in return. When presented with a challenge, it can feel easier to shift the argument that address it – but it is a weaker and less persuasive response. I drew my own conclusions – privately.

It seemed as though we were seeing the world in through parallel lenses: broadly the same information interpreted in diametrically opposite ways, nothing profound enough to alter that fact.

Nonetheless, the discussion was civil; over time we found there were areas of agreement, and at the same time, I suspect some points were raised by either side that the other had not previously considered. If our interaction has any longer lasting effect, I suspect it will be incremental – and this is perhaps why we need to see such events as the ‘sowing of seeds’ that may just germinate given time and modify someone’s long term view. It works both ways, of course – and perhaps that is the final benefit: it is better to talk properly to our opponents than abuse them, give a little, learn a little and then part, disagreeing if necessary – but perhaps slightly the wiser.

Opinion & Thought

Presents of mind

“C’est pour offrir?”

“Oui. S’il vous plaît”

I watched, enchanted, as the assistant deftly turned a small white card box into a minor artwork. But I also learned: how the paper needs to be only a little larger than the surface area of the contents; how thicker, better quality paper folds and cuts more cleanly than cheap stuff; how one should fold it in as closely into the corners as possible; how the end flaps should never stray onto the main surfaces, how to wrap tricky objects by starting from the largest surface, and how to use a minimal amount of tape so as not to mar the effect.

The package was expertly quartered with ribbon, the loose ends made into a bow and drawn across the back of the scissors blade to curl them, a decorative sprig attached. The Swiss are masters at such small acts of hospitality. My hosts were delighted; I went home and practised.

The giving and receiving of presents is a significant gesture and worthy of care: an expression of appreciation and understanding from one human being to another. Choosing something to give, gratuitously to delight another involves effort and insight; it means assuming proxy powers to enhance another’s life.  Dig deeper and you find yourself confronting profound questions about whether humans are fundamentally competitive or collaborative creatures: the act of voluntarily giving something away could even be counter-evolutionary, which may be why the sense of beneficence it generates can be so pleasurable for the giver too…

But while the giving and receiving of presents can be a delightful thing, offering moments of innocent joy, it is also a minefield of potential misjudgement and faux-pas; in this apparently simple act, there are so many judgements to be made – which may be why it is so often played down, made more pragmatic than symbolic, just another tick on the to-do list.

Perhaps the French phrase gives an inkling of this: something to be offered. Not insisted upon, nor taken for granted; perhaps something artfully chosen and presented, highly personal – tentatively, humbly proffered for acceptance. Therein lie imponderable questions about whom the present is really for, and what its purpose is:  the stage is set for a delicate pas-de-deux between giver and recipient. But while the obvious answer might be the latter, there is more to it than that.

 One can begin by wondering whether it is the act or the artefact that is more important; “It’s the thought that counts” might give us an answer – but which thought? Whose? Not all presents are chosen or given wholly willingly. And what if it’s wide of the mark?

An artfully-given present demands empathy from the giver towards the recipient, in order to know what will both delight and be of use. As important is the implied care that was taken in the choosing; to that extent, a present says much about the giver too, and this therefore allows him or her some sovereignty over the act. Thus it also requires receptivity, good grace and a willingness to be delighted on the part of the recipient.

So presents may be as much about giving as receiving; while I appreciated that as little as a child as anyone else, over time I have come to enjoy the act of seeking out suitable gifts that I hope will delight their intended recipients – but which also say a little about me and our relationship in the process. For there are, after all, two people involved in this act.

Literally and figuratively wrapped up in all this is the nature of the gift itself: should it be useful, or simply beautiful? Whom should it most delight – the giver or the receiver? Is the purpose to say, “Here is something I hope you will like” or “Here is something that I like, that I hope you will too”? In an ideal world, they will overlap of course – but let’s not get too ambitious… People nowadays tend to have very specific wishes, but there may be times when something more generic but genuinely charming comes closer to hitting the spot – as we tend to do with people we know less well.

If it’s really the thought that counts, then the nature of the present itself perhaps matters less, so long as it is not actually rejected. Most people are realistic and tactful enough to understand the occasional failures, though it is still an opportunity lost and a disappointment gained, for what is a present if not genuinely loved…? What is perhaps more difficult is misjudgements that persist year after year, with neither side apparently learning very much. A kind of entrenched resignation sets in at yet another tea towel from….. A seriously mis-received present can cause embarrassment and cause nearly as much offence as does a good one pleasure; see www.dauphin/henryV/tennisballs.…..

And so we very often play safe. We fall easily into judging a present by its content rather than its symbolism; I am as guilty as the next, though I am still as delighted by something genuinely unexpected, provided it genuinely pleases me – but that is the difficult bit, for that involves knowing me more than a little…and I’m not keen on the subterfuge required to cover up the less successful ones.

If specialness is the main criterion, a present doesn’t need to be large or expensive; I would rather receive something nice to eat or drink (nicely wrapped of course) than an ugly but ludicrously expensive watch, a bubble-packed green plastic smoke-emitting toy dragon with illuminating LED eyes, a baggy orange acrylic pullover that I really will never bring myself to wear even once, or even a pair of Beolab-28 speakers, which Bang & Olufsen’s website is (without apparent irony) offering in its ‘gift suggestions’, for a mere £10,750. A badly misjudged present suggests that the person giving it either does not understand, or does not care – or both; it wasn’t a present, just an obligation. Repetition only makes it worse…

Sadly, I think a lot of the charm has already been lost. I blame the usual suspects, namely commerce and the media, who shamelessly devalue everything they touch so long as it boosts the bottom line. Modern retail couldn’t care less about the niceties, so long as we all part with shedloads of cash in the process; it benefits from turning present-giving from a symbolic act into a utilitarian and expensive one. Many have been conned, seeming to believe that the important criteria are the size, number and cost of the presents, rather than how well-considered or genuinely delightful they are. Why does anyone need to give the same person multiple presents? Do two presents delight twice as much as one? If nothing else, the Law of Diminishing Returns says not…

With the loss of ‘well-given’ has also gone ‘well-received’: particularly now that we often know what the wrapping (if present) will contain, much of the delight is lost before we have even started, replaced by inevitability, no matter how nice the item. Once the present is opened, it is put aside on the pile with all the others, possibly (if it is lucky) to be revisited another day. Just another act of material acquisition.

Yet despite the foregoing, I admit I have become a complete Present Pragmatist. I think it was the realisation that this is indeed a two-way process that did it – and it seems I am, once again, in a very small minority. I’m not sure where else the best resolution can lie between two people who for whatever reason (perhaps great distance?) only have a rudimentary appreciation of each other, for whom presents may be bought more because of the relationship involved than a deep desire to delight that individual. I would rather receive no present at all than an inappropriate one, just because someone did not think hard enough about the pas-de-deux. That may sound ungracious, and appear to contradict my earlier point about the respective prerogatives of the giver and receiver – but the solution surely lies in the level of understanding necessary between those people in the first place. If the price of resolving that issue is to do my own legwork, then so be it.

It is not a matter of having expensive tastes. I would rather receive something small but well-chosen – or else add my own contribution, to make affordable something that otherwise might not have been – than be given something useless to me just because it was cheap, of an “appropriate” size/value, or because it briefly amused to the person who bought it. Not that this has proved much defence against “I changed my mind and bought you this instead…” – leaving me to pick up the entire bill for what we had previously been agreed would be shared….

All manner of complexities can simply be sidestepped by either specifying very closely what one would like (sending a hyperlink is almost fool-proof), allowing only a very small number of people to do one’s shopping – or even mutually buying one’s own, and settling up later. This seems to avoid most of the tide of polyester pyjamas, sugary snacks and joke socks (that play Jingle Bells) that might otherwise arrive. It even avoids some (but not all) of the gaudy, sticky-tape-plastered (and definitely not recyclable) wrapping paper that seems to be that national norm when it comes to ‘presentation’, Swiss standards being rare here. And given that much of the symbolism is already gone by that point, I am also mercenary in my use of online shopping to minimise the tedious logistics.

I hasten to say that I do apply the same logic the other way round: people should have what they tell me they want, no matter what I think. I learned years ago that there is no point going to great lengths to acquire something special for someone, only for it to be utterly lost on them. Nor to wrap things especially nicely if they are routinely shredded without a glance. My belief that nice things always cut through was shown to be hopelessly naïve.

So, I largely save my efforts for those who do understand, and accept that I will be buying a fair number of the watering cans, car tyre pumps, underwear and novelty nick-nacks that some people would just buy for themselves rather than requesting as presents. That is, I suppose, another form of good grace – the acceptance that one should completely suspend one’s own input when giving, and just do what was asked. I suppose it means that I accept (reluctantly) that my idea of Giving is not the only valid one. Except that inwardly, I don’t; too much of the essence has been lost.

There are, however, certain lines I will not cross: I always buy the best present I can afford rather than the cheapest (or first) I can find, I do not dilute my budget by adding needless extras – and I still wrap tightly and with minimal tape.

I don’t intend this post to be taken too seriously, but neither is its message unimportant. It may speak of ships passing in the night, of people who, for whatever reason do not really understand or value or think hard enough about each other, even when they may supposedly be close. Present-giving easily becomes tokenism, ritual, routine, rather than a genuine expression of delight, appreciation and respect – not of the thing itself, but of one person in another.

Happy Christmas.

Opinion & Thought

Not just for Christmas…

As another year eases down with scarcely a bump onto the runway leading to Christmas, even this occasional curmudgeon must admit that he likes this time of year. Indeed, it is probably the single most Sprezzatura event in the calendar – the time when even those who progress through life heads down, pedalling furiously are supposed to let up and acknowledge that life can be good. Indeed, even should be good. That we can spend a little time just being mellow, and appreciating and sharing our comforts.

I tend to feel, though, that rather too much hinges on one day; particularly if the religious side of Christmas is of no concern, then quite why the rituals of one particular day are put on such a pedestal is rather mystifying. I suppose the whole thing needs a focus in order to be what it is – but it is also worth remembering that 25th December is not pivotal everywhere; for some, Christmas Eve is of more importance. And that’s without the flip side of the coin, of course, namely that rituals can easily become a rods of unwelcome familial ‘duty’ for the back, even without added complications such as for those who must work on 25th.

I have always preferred the growing anticipation of Advent to The Day itself, not least because there is longer to savour it. It is not as though there is a scarcity of short, dark days in need of uplifting…

I think one of the great things about the online world is the way in which one gains a far greater sense of things happening elsewhere, than was the case in the bad old days when most of us were much more locked into our respective narrow national conversations. It is great that I can watch a webcam from Spitsbergen or Namibia as I have been doing in recent days. And I can see how many of my favourite places are preparing.

Especially in the past two years, I have appreciated the opportunity, courtesy of YouTube, to take walks through cities, rides on trains, and view domestic interiors and routines across the world, that has done a little to make up for the total absence of physical travel. In recent weeks, I have visited the decorated streets of a dozen countries, and strolled virtually through the Christmas markets of some of my favourite continental cities.

I will leave the real Bah-Humbug to the Christmas Nationalist (my description) who seemed incapable of letting even the season of goodwill interrupt his steady stream of Brexit tosh, to the irritation of quite a few. It was not I who pointed out that nearly every ‘British’ Christmas tradition is actually a continental import. Speculation followed about just what was the original, insular British Christmas; it’s almost impossible to say, of course, given the amount of cultural to-and-fro that has always existed between these islands and the rest of the world, and the near-continent in particular.

In true Brexit style, the CN seemed not to be listening, however, as his various totems were overturned. What is apparently important is that we have OUR OWN British Christmas now! Forget all those lousy foreign imports such as panettone, lebkuchen, stollen, Christmas markets, turkeys, port, and Christmas trees for heavens’ sake. It felt as though The Queen at 3pm was all there was left. And that I can well do without…

Christmas is the time of year when our supposedly shared values and culture are most on display – be that through the general belief in “peace and goodwill”, the way in which a formerly Christian festival is now the closest thing we have to a secular, global one, and (sadly) the extent to which we have let it become an orgy of commercialised material consumption.

Culture in this sense is not the stuff of museums; it is simply what all people everywhere value and do in their lives; at this time of year, that is more on show that usual.

Yet there is a tension here: at a time of supposed togetherness, individual self-determination has never been stronger; while Christmas as an international (retail?) phenomenon still seems to be growing, I suspect there is more divergence than ever in what individual people actually do. And so, we arrive at a cultural pick-and-mix, where we are all left to compile our own particular versions of Christmas, as with everything else. They may not always mesh well; CN and I found ourselves on resolutely opposing sides. The defender of British libertarianism in effect demanded that we should all now follow the same narrow, laid-down (imagined?) British-only version of Christmas Freedom – whereas I, a little to my surprise, ended up advocating the kind of cultural magpie-ism that might also be the source of some of my worst Christmas nightmares.

It can turn into a very personal minefield (I feel a post on the art and politics of present giving coming on…). Personally, I am very happy that my festive season is now a little internationalised in a way it wasn’t as a child: there are Italian and German goodies in the cupboard alongside the Christmas Cake; there are Scandi-styled decorations on the tree rather than tinsel; I enjoyed my virtual walks through the Christmas markets, and I take my present-giving lead from what I have seen elsewhere. The images in my mind are, if anything, more of Christmas in Milan, Berne, Strasbourg or Lille than closer to home. Except, to varying degrees, that is my cultural home – it has all melded into a comfortable, pleasurable whole that reflects my sense that home is no longer constrained by a narrow stretch of water. We are all parts of the same thing, which is in a sense, surely part of the message of Christmas.

But there is also the risk of disappointment; as the options have multiplied, we cannot assume that even those nearest to us share the same tastes and values. Despite my best efforts, I struggle to appreciate many aspects of the home-grown effort. It’s not just the scam “Winter Wonderland” mudbaths; the homegrown ‘Christmas Markets’ we have visited have always been disappointing jamborees of junk food and tack – pale imitations of the continental versions; why do we always have to adulterate and dumb down? I don’t understand, either, those who want flashing plastic widget-fixers for presents; a present, even a small one, should be something special. I don’t understand the need to get paralytic or to make the outside of my home look like Piccadilly Circus. That said, I have yet to find anywhere in the U.K. whose municipal lights come even close to the spectacular displays found on the continent. Many here are sad, embarrassing and/or garish.

I still don’t understand where the instinct for Christmas to be a time of either Bah-Humbug or inane bad taste came from (whether tacky pullovers, weak T.V. or daft behaviour). My best guess is the only other nation that seems to do Christmas as badly as the U.K. – that found on the other side of the Atlantic, whose “Holiday Season” seems even more toothless than ours. But then, they have Thanksgiving too… Noel Edmonds may have a fair bit to answer for, too. I suppose the answer is that we are discussing a nation that largely doesn’t know how to enjoy itself gracefully in normal times, so there is no reason why Christmas should be any different. It either ends up hidebound, forced, daft or paralytic, while those who beg to differ are (mercifully) left to their own devices, but tacitly agreed to be party-poopers.

But we’re back where we started: Christmas is about Sprezzatura to all wo/men – and as in the rest of the year, the British are not collectively very good at it.

I’m not a real curmudgeon: I enjoy Advent and Christmas – because all it really does is amplify my normal approach:

 A (good) Life is for Life, not just for Christmas.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Playing to a gallery

Smoke-fired ceramic by Moira Goodall

I could quite happily live in some art galleries. On visits to them, when Stendhal’s Syndrome threatens, my diversion is to find an inspiring space and imagine how I would inhabit it. Perhaps my best place for doing this is the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, whose building by Renzo Piano perfectly suits my modern tastes – not to mention its fine collection of Giacometti sculptures.

Fondation Beyeler, Riehen, Basel by Renzo Piano

My chances of doing this are, of course absolutely zero – but I think there are lessons to be learned for the uses we put to our actual living spaces. You don’t have to be a man of Ernst Beyeler’s means or connections (he was a friend of Picasso) to curate a collection and make your home a gallery of your own.

I fear the resolutely lowbrow mainstream in this country would not spare me a disparaging comment were I to admit to such ambitions.  Sadly, I suspect the idea of buying art is another thing that many feel is ‘not for them’, conjuring images of rarefied elitism even if they are not terrified by imagined financial nightmares.

It need not be so. The first thing to do is remember that in one’s own gallery, the only person one needs to please is oneself; the second is to realise that neither need the prime consideration be the financial input (let alone output).

What I like about some of those galleries is the monumental quality of the spaces that they, like other good architecture, create. They have a ‘presence’, often found in stillness (but also animation) that is palpable when one is in them, that can make time seem to stand still, and that for a short time removes one’s life from more mundane contexts.

This atmosphere itself can almost count as an exhibit; more than once I have spent more time taking in the building than the collection. It’s hard to capture in words, but this timelessness is something that inspires me when it comes to interior design; a space should have a character and identity that moves it beyond being a mere receptacle or backdrop for prosaic activities; such spaces alter their relationship with the people who occupy them, amplifying a feeling of continuity and the sense that civilisation is bigger and longer lasting than mere individuals. Great architecture is one of the ways in which cultures anchor themselves in time and place – but it need not be limited to the grandiose. I find this most often in the sparse spaces of modernism, but also find in them an affinity with medieval religious buildings and the villas of Herculaneum and Pompeii.

This perceived depersonalisation might turn many people off, but I like it: it can add to rootedness, rather than detract from it. Here, it helps, I suppose, that we live in a building that is 130 years old, and which has had former lives as a school, community rooms and a business centre. Yet in that time, we are amongst the first people actually to live in the building…

From the perspective of creating one’s own art ‘gallery’, it helps us to have a three-metre height to play with, which give our rooms breathing space – but that is not to say that the greater intimacy of smaller spaces cannot succeed in a different way.

I still remember the time we brought our first original piece home and hung it. Bought for a ‘significant’ birthday, the artist-made print from a photograph of the Cambridgeshire Fens utterly transformed the room. A photographic print it may be, but it has the effect of a Rothko-esque abstract, and it seemed to draw one’s vision towards it, while exuding a calm that reached the whole space, in a way my previous more mundane wall-art never had. It had had the same effect when I first saw it from a distance, in the window of a gallery in Cambridge.

The first piece: Fenland dusk

Following from this, over the past fifteen or so years, has been a small sequence of other acquisitions. We have tended to buy ceramics; here in East Anglia, there are a good many sculptors and ceramicists if one knows where to look, and we like the tactility and possibility for interaction with three-dimensional pieces. We have bought from galleries in Cambridge, Dedham, and Norwich; other pieces have been found more widely, from London and Manchester to Basel and Copenhagen. Most recently, we acquired two pieces (see header photo) by the local ceramicist Moira Goodall, from Sculpt, a gallery just a few miles from our home, where the Dutch-born artist Maurice Blik has created a lovely, pared-back display space in an out-building of his home.

Being interested in modern design, we have also tended to blur the boundaries – for example, one wall ‘sculpture’ is in reality a newspaper rack by the Danish company Rosendal, bought in Copenhagen, but never used for its intended purpose, and simply appreciated for its form and finish. Similarly, a small inheritance allowed the purchase of a Vitra original of Sori Yanagi’s classic butterfly stool, again more for its form than function. Alongside them are a number of more clearly art pieces, which we like to think sit well in the little personal gallery that we have created.

Form or function? Rosendal media rack.

The process of purchasing an art piece is something of a special experience in itself; by conventional definitions, what one is buying has no purpose other than its own existence, and whatever cerebral or aesthetic impact it can have. Yet it somehow generates a sense of doing something very affirmative. It might easily be seen as a waste of money – but I can say with confidence that each of the dozen or so pieces we have acquired have more than repaid the relatively modest outlays in the beauty and gravitas that they bring to our home, and thence both satisfaction and a sense of wellbeing to those within it. It should also be mentioned that we have never experienced the condescension that might be expected from such quarters, only delight in shared appreciation – even though we only ever spend very modest amounts compared to many of the price tags we see.

I somehow doubt that our collection will ever need its own museum, as Ernst Beyeler’s eventually did when it was bequeathed to the Swiss nation. And yet that rather august individual can also teach us another thing: according to a friend who lives in the same small Swiss town, Beyeler – in the best tradition of discrete Swiss egalitarianism – was an unassuming man who would bid you a friendly Good Morning as you passed him in the street: a fine collection of art need not a superiority complex make.

In a similar way, the existence of the Own Art scheme (which we have used twice) to make purchases of art more affordable, reinforces this message: art should not be only for the wealthy or rarefied few, but can enhance everyday lives in a way that mass-produced trinkets fail to do. Our only rule and advice is to set the bar high and only buy what one really, instinctively likes – but (circumstances permitting) not to hold back when you see it; tomorrow it might not be there.

None of the pieces we have bought cost more than a few tanks of petrol, and none will ever make it into the category of ‘great’ art; But they speak significantly to their owners, and thus they are much greater value than any external utility or recognition requires. And that is surely the first point of art.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Civilised?

I suppose it is reasonable for the human race to look back over the time since Lucy lived in Ethiopia and conclude that we have made a lot of progress. We might flatter ourselves that we are more sophisticated now – though how our increasingly ‘sophisticated’ methods of killing both each other, and the planet on which we live square with that, I’m not sure.

Sprezzatura, too, (both the concept and the blog) is concerned with the matter of civilised living. It’s a difficult concept to define – but my best attempt concerns the ways in which self-awareness makes it possible to overcome baser instincts and use rational capabilities to make choices that lead to favourable (even pleasurable) experiences of life. In short, it is about overruling the more primitive instincts of humankind and living in a considered, rational and generally benign way.

When you look at it like that, it becomes much less certain how much progress we have really made. One of the key elements of enlightenment is the realisation that self-interest is a more complex phenomenon than raw selfishness. It requires that people understand the principle of the General Good. And yet it can hardly be claimed to be widely adhered to as modern society’s universal governing principle.

It seems reasonable to suspect that such insights are not universally developed in human societies. Neither need it inevitably be so that those societies that consider themselves the most civilised actually are so. I suspect there are lessons for more ‘advanced’ societies in some of the supposedly more ‘primitive’ ones on this planet.

Perhaps a more neutral definition might concern the extent to which societies, and the behaviours that define them, respect, preserve and enhance the lives of their members, no matter what their levels of technological and material advancement. What they have in common is the use of conscious decision-making to achieve those ends, by overruling and eliminating the more antisocial aspects of behaviour, many of which occur when individual survival instinct rather than reason, drives behaviour. That said, it is probably true than more developed societies in general are less brutal than the alternatives.

Probably the most important realisation is that humans are thrive when they collaborate. In this way, brain starts to outperform brawn – and one of its principal applications is the mutual protection and enhancement of the members of society. Many primitive societies were characterised by uncontrolled conflict, in ways that advanced ones at least attempt to regulate.

Sprezzatura is an expression of thriving – the sweet-spot between individual liberty and collective values: when we reach higher levels of development, ‘civilisation’ is expressed more through social conventions and preferences than basic survival. In that sense, those societies that place a high value on refined experiences might be considered to have achieved a higher level of civilisation. Throughout history, high civilisation has always been expressed in cultural terms, even if we accept (as Orson Welles observed) that it was not always a product of peaceable societies. 

I was recently attacked (again) on social media for criticising the United Kingdom for being insular, lacking wide perspective and by extension, relatively uncivilised in comparison with its neighbours. My critics were seeking only one thing: a binary answer to the question of whether or not I “love my country”. They refused to accept my reply that it was a far more complex matter than that, demanding a “simple answer to a simple question”. When I eventually capitulated and said No I Don’t, they disappeared in a puff of bombastic smoke. It seemed all they were seeking was a crude binary definition of which tribe I belonged to; hardly a stance designed to inspire confidence in their own sophistication (read civilisation).

The connection between insularity and civilisation needs further examination. While it is possible for discrete cultures to acquire sophistication, more often it is the result of cosmopolitanism – the experience of encountering, interpreting, accommodating and learning from, cultural diversity. It is this that gives our species’ most intense cultural experiences their richness. By contrast, cultures that are self-referential risk remaining parochial and limited in their horizons.

Many of the things I intermittently rail about on Sprezzatura might be seen in the same way: the failure to appreciate complexity and sophistication or to take a broad view; the tendency in Britain to view life in simplistic, utilitarian, even bipartisan terms. Binary thinking is neither sophisticated, nor civilised. From my perspective, the stance of my critics simply confirmed their parochialism – not that they realised it, of course. And yet, it seems typical of the nature of current public debate: the reduction of complex matters to simple tribal identities, with no concern for nuance or shades of opinion.

In the UK, most societal discourse still remains mired in this binary approach – whether the issue of Brexit, or indeed our political system more widely. Our media tend to provoke such partisanship. It is perhaps why we have permitted the emergence of the most polarised society in the developed world. It may be a reflection of the absence of the philosophy and critical thought in our educational priorities. (Our education system mostly reflects the utilitarian intentions of those who control it).

It is also why so much of our national attention goes into beating the opposition, rather than reaching acceptable and inclusive compromise. It is why good governance and pluralistic systems are, as a result, conspicuously lacking. More civilised insight sees and rejects the limitations of such thinking and seeks complex compromise; we, meanwhile, decry such approaches as “weak and indecisive”, as though decisive extremism is better than consensual moderation.

In his new book The Power of Geography, Tim Marshall describes the U.K. as a place that “for most of its history was…windswept and backward… a huge cold, wet island on the periphery of where history happened… full of wild tribes who couldn’t read and write, and instead of learning, spent their time fighting each other”. Not the way most Britons prefer to think of it, but that does not necessarily make him wrong. Marshall mentions the nation’s “psychology of separateness” which continues to this day in the refusal to acknowledge its challenges, and a resolute blindness towards what happens elsewhere and what we can learn from it. It is the cause of our lack of cosmopolitanism, progressiveness – and ultimately, civilisation.

If this seems an unnecessarily academic argument, we can look at some of its very real manifestations. For example, the rabid attachment of many Britons to their subservient status as subjects of the Crown, rather than self-sovereign citizens of a republic. We can contrast the sclerotic British electoral system with the checks and balances of the German one, which is regularly updated to ensure balance and participative representation, rather than an obsession with who “won” and the the “tradition” of arcane medieval precedent. No clearer expression of this is needed than the money presently being spent in this country on building a replica of a Victorian Chamber to allow the illusion that nothing changes, while the infrastructure of the original is (belatedly) dragged into the modern era. Anything but embrace Change.

The fact that the British tend to demonise other systems than their own may be more a reflection of their own unsophistication than a weakness of those systems themselves. The constant need to “beat the world” is not an expression of outward-lookingness, but precisely the opposite: it relies on a primitive conception of them-against-us, with us (of course) as the perpetual ‘winners’. Real life just ain’t like that.

We would do better to examine others’ experiences – and then put our own house in order. I recently saw reported the views of overseas-domiciled Britons concerning covid precautions currently in place in the U.K. Several described what they saw as a ‘free-for-all’ – a phrase which, it occurred to me, might more widely apply to the U.K.’s way of running itself. A recent Commons Select Committee report into the handling of Covid criticised the country for failing to look and learn from what was happening elsewhere, instead choosing to resort to the complacent claim that “nowhere is better prepared” than the UK. It was patently not true.

Compared with its neighbours, the regulating – civilising – role of effective governance on society seems poorly understood in this country. In some ways, Marshall’s description of the British seems unnervingly apt for the present age.

When I read of the massively higher covid infection rates in this country compared to the rest of Europe, ‘uncivilised’ is one of the words that comes to mind to describe the gung-ho attitude, in this case of its rulers towards its people. While Johnson’s administration may be extreme, it is only a matter of degree compared with most previous ones, from those who resisted universal suffrage to those that imposed an economic liberalism that favours the strong and wealthy over the rest, and abandons the majority to the harsh winds of economic fortune, as though “there is no alternative”. Actually, there is – as is well-shown by the various social democracies of Western Europe, which seem more actively interested in supporting their citizens than punishing them. And yet, a not untypical approach in Britain is, “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working”.

This is not just a political criticism – for those polities reflect the attitudes of those who vote for them, many of whom in Britain also seem to retain a primitive, utilitarian view of existence. It is ironic in the extreme that this nation has an unhealthy obsession with a “heritage” predicated on strict social orderliness, when its neglected present is so far to the other extreme.

The multitude of indicators reflecting the contrasts of outcome between societies that in effect permit the antisocial aspects of human nature to let rip, and those that attempt to channel them, are too plentiful to list here. Almost every comparison between the Anglo-American model and European social democracies reveals the failure of the former to act responsibly, moderately and equitably – and the consequences of this, ranging from poor social and infrastructure provision to levels of environmental degradation.

The impact of covid is about as objective a measure of the consequences as one could find – but there are plenty of others not far behind.

In societal terms, hands-on government does make a difference, as even the UK discovered when its hand was finally forced during the pandemic. The failure of the UK government to understand the willingness of its people to accept draconian measures is emblematic of the problem: we have a system that neglects its responsibilities, even to the extent of failing to identify a societal cry for help. Will we learn? It seems not – the current approach is to abandon everything to the supposed inevitabilities of fate – at which point one might reasonably start to question what government is actually for.

In my eyes, it is not ‘for’ giving a leg-up to the already powerful, and abandoning the rest to their fate. I want to live in a country that feels like it has my interests at heart, rather than one that is out to be as hard on me as it can get away with. Libertarians claim to argue for individual freedom – but mostly their own. They lack the empathy that characterises more civilised thinking, and fail to see life as anything more than a dog-eat-dog game of survival, in which they pit their own (assumed) survival against that of the rest. This is not a definition of civilised behaviour.

We tend to feel love for those who nurture and care for us; I don’t see why I should be expected to profess my unconditional love for something that does otherwise – certainly not because of some misdirected notion of obligation, nor a willingness to ignore the realities of the situation, nor simply because of the accident of where I was born.

Not that those still so insular that they only need simplistic binary answers will ever know otherwise, of course. They didn’t stay around long enough for a civilised debate, let alone to learn why some of us advocate something better than tub-thumping blind patriotism.

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

Because we’re all worth it…

Some years ago, we were on holiday with our Swiss friends in eastern Switzerland. Alfred decided he wanted to see inside a particularly venerable old hotel in the area, so when we passed it one day, he strode up to the reception desk and asked to have a look around. Even though none of us was remotely dressed for such a venue and clearly had no intention of checking in, we got our (unsupervised) look round, no obligation expected. Indeed, I sensed pride at this evidence of the hotel’s reputation. It is social fearlessness like this and other similar incidents, that gradually made me conclude that the Swiss are relatively unencumbered by the kind of class consciousness that might prevent many Britons from doing similarly in their own country. But then, Switzerland was founded precisely on the democratic rejection of its medieval overlords, and they seem to have kept the faith ever since…

The interesting thing about the Swiss is that despite their nation’s wealth, they mostly do not ‘do’ social showing off. Their shops abound with high quality products – even their bargain stores rarely sell complete rubbish – and yet it is hard to detect much social snobbery. (As I was told by a Swiss, “flashy” in that country is only done by expat incomers). Buying things is not widely seen as a form of recreation or statement – but when it happens, quality is to the fore. This does not seem to be regarded as the preserve of the wealthy, rather something that is just normal. Most people seem to live unostentatiously, but they still expect high quality homes, clothes, food, and services, and seem unselfconscious in their patronage of prestigious brands. “Because I’m worth it” does not have the narcissistic overtones that it does in Britain: maybe L’Oréal misjudged its message here? Compared with British consumers, the Swiss seem very considered; restrained, if quite demanding – and in control of their own behaviour.

I have seen similar elsewhere too – and I concluded, not for the first time, that it is the British who are the outliers. Somewhere, in their eagerness to consume voraciously there lies a hint of servility or guilt, as if we can only define ourselves by how much we buy. While many continental countries excel at producing high-quality commodities – with prices to match – what seems relatively absent is the idea that one is buying social status, rather than just a very good product. Whether it is an effect of their republicanism, or a lasting memory of the troubles wrought over the centuries by their elites, it seems to me that many continental nations have shed much of the class consciousness that many Britons still accept as a fact of life – that is, when they are not failing to notice it at all. It is not studied over-compensation that makes the point (which would in any case defeat it); it is just not there in any strength in the first place.

Politically-correct modern Britain, of course, denies such weakness – but a recent poll of my late-teenage students revealed that even as they claimed to be “unintimidated” by posh accents, they knew precisely what I was talking about, and perceived those who had them as “not like us”. Social class is not only a hangover preoccupation of the aristocracy – those on the other rungs still know their place just as well…

I strongly dislike this: it seems incompatible with the principles of modern democratic life which should emancipate people to be themselves – and depresses the expectations that many appear to have of their own lives. Hence the widespread tolerance of low standards and the mass-market blandness that allows producers to cut corners in pursuit of excess profit. Conversely, the attention given to conspicuous wealth feeds the status anxiety that defeats the liberating objective of genuinely good living.

As with all these matters, finding convincing explanations is difficult – but I suspect the “not for the likes of us” mindset (which is also permanently primed to snipe at anyone who disagrees) really is a legacy of enduring social polarisation, a highly uneven distribution of wealth, and perhaps a state education system that does not place enough emphasis on the non-utilitarian aspects of its purpose. We might also throw in for good measure an echo of a puritan past, an instinctive self-denying philistinism, and a climate that hardy cultivates the sensuous side of our nature. We just don’t do La Dolce Vita

So, it seems this nation is no closer to democratising its quality of life than ever. We seem utterly unable to dissociate high quality from social elitism, let alone to realise that the best way to disarm it is to refuse to be excluded by it. The masses have been encouraged to focus on the false economy of buying cheap and often (but not so cheerful), by an overly strong retail sector on which the nation’s economy is heavily dependent. Those who do take notice seem more concerned with joining in the showing-off than disarming it, encouraged (staple-gun in hand) by the battery of aspirational makeover shows on TV. But for all the national emphasis on acquiring money and prestige, there seems to be precious little collective idea what productively to do with it once one has it. Meanwhile, the real elite is left to browse the boutiques of Chelsea in peace…

The objection of expense is often raised, but this too this is something of a red herring created by flawed basic assumptions – in particular, that Quantity is important. It fails to see that buying less but better is more satisfying, and you can sometimes substitute piles of cash with thought and effort. This is surely a lesson we all need to learn, if only for the sake of the environment. 

I am mindful, though, of those for whom the only ‘choice’ available is between anything and nothing; it cannot be easy to exercise higher judgment when you are holding down three zero-hours jobs just to put food on the table. But even here, the general pressure towards conspicuous consumption can hardly help, while making different choices possible – for example by ensuring universal access to fresh rather than over-priced ‘convenience’ food must surely help. The potential gains are probably bigger at this end of society than for those who already live in the lap of luxury. For me, discernment is about thought, education and autonomy, not money – but for all the talk of good lifestyle choices, British society is still not good at helping people to make them.

A lesson from the pandemic might be that doing less but better does work. But I suspect that our conditioning is so complete, that even such rationality will struggle to overcome the blockages in many minds for why, as I have argued in the previous instalments, we too are worth it.

In the years since I could take my good mental health for granted, the things that can support a good quality of life have taken on a greater importance. It’s a tricky issue, and perhaps why many seem to duck it. It is probably dishonest to claim that our appreciation of a piece of fine cloth is only ever to do with its lustre and tactility, and never how it will make us look when we wear it. It is probably human nature to revel in our advantage and succumb to a little pampering. But I wonder whether the issue need be as convoluted as it often is in societies such as mine, that labours under the weight of centuries of ingrained social prejudice; perhaps others simply carry it more lightly.

So, to conclude this sequence of posts, here are some ideas to help combat that natural British sense of anxious self-deprecation, for which we then rush to overcompensate…

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Carts and Horses or For the Hell of it…

“I’ll see you next week!” said the lady I didn’t yet know was Mrs King as she strode past the gutter where the grubby-fingered five-year-old me was playing with my friends. I was mystified.

But the next week, I was indeed locked into a sequence of weekly lessons with the old-school but not unkindly piano teacher. I did my practice and a year later sailed through Grade One with a distinction. But the strict, solitary routine rapidly paled; there was no reward in the endless scales practice, nor in most of the dull pieces I was given to learn. Another year later, I scraped through Grade Two – and Grade Three never happened. That was the end of my musical career for a decade – with the exception of  Singing Together, the BBC broadcasts in which we were exposed weekly to traditional song at primary school, which I loved.

In my mid-teens, I passed through and out of the trivialities of pop music in a couple of years, and through chance encounters with a tune book, a guitar and then a mandolin, I taught myself to play. In the years between then and the end of university, far too much of the time I should have been devoting to study was spent playing in bands with my friends. (Luckily, I had enough ability to carry my studies, but there was still a cost on results day…)

Nearly half a century on, I’m still playing traditional music, and it was a major support during Lockdown. Ten years ago, I switched from the mandolin to the fiddle, and picked it up quickly enough for it to become my main instrument – again mostly self-taught, with some online input and occasional steering from a friend who is a good player.

The College where I now work had no more teaching contracts for me this year, but offered work in Learning Support instead. As an incognito ex(?) teacher, this is affording a sustained insight into teaching in a range of other subject areas far distant from my own. It’s informative to see the teaching styles that are deployed. This is not a criticism of individuals, all of whom clearly know what they are doing – but the experience has reinforced my prior conclusion that the personal qualities of a teacher are a vital, and nowadays overlooked matter in the mix. Getting people qualified has become so serious a business, that both pleasure and distinctiveness seem to be getting squeezed out. Horses for courses, of course – and it is certainly true that pleasure means different things to different people. There is not a lot of visible evidence of disengaged students – at least at this stage of the year – but that seems in part because the young people themselves are now so po-faced about what they are doing.

It’s not entirely new. My sister, a skilled amateur classical violinist, summed it up a while ago: “I worked so hard at my music – and yet you seem to enjoy yours so much more…” The same seems to be true in the classroom: there seems to be a widespread absence of Joy. It’s not the teachers’ fault: as I said, they are all clearly very competent at doing what they have been told to do, namely conveyoring young people through their exams. What they are feeling inside, I cannot know. But I think I am also seeing what I have long suspected: the worthy and necessary process of becoming qualified is killing the one thing that makes learning worth it: the joy of doing it – well, joyfully. This is why the teacher’s freedom to practise is so crucial.

It’s been the story of my life: another well-meaning but off-target attempt by my parents to steer my music in my late teens also ended in failure, and my later involvement with a choral society came to an end with a change of musical director from a light-hearted (but highly skilled) individual to one who upped the formality stakes, introduced auditions and gave people a hard time if they ever missed a rehearsal. The dead hand of excessive seriousness should not be underestimated, even when it is well-meaning.

I’m not advocating trite ‘fun’: I’ve argued against that in education strongly in the past. There is no doubt that achieving great skill requires rigour; even an informal genre such as traditional music demands much self-discipline and close work to do it well. But there is more than one way of promoting it – and I fear that we now take education so seriously that the essential enjoyment is being squeezed into extinction. If we kill it, we extinguish the only flame that can really fuel that process in the longer term.

There is a difference between superficial “fun” and the deep enjoyment of developing one’s skills when done from genuine motivation. The heading photo is an unflattering picture of me playing at a recent gig; the expression is not agony, but a deep and very satisfying concentration in what is almost always the joyous buzz of playing music for other people – something that has driven me for all those years, in a way that over-serious, externally-imposed things never could.

I think the same process has occurred across my wider experience; despite that early lack of academic focus, later in life, I came back to self-motivated learning across a far wider range of subjects than the school options system ever permitted. My instinct took me somewhere similar in my career, always feeling the deep need to plough my own reflective furrow rather than blindly follow the constrained, corporate-approved one.

I may not have become a virtuoso; that does indeed require something exceptional – but for most people, this is not the issue – and I wonder even how many thoroughbred virtuosi would really have chosen that route from an early age, had the ‘choice’ not been imposed. While one may of course extend the principle of proportionate returns to the stratosphere, I wonder where the diminishing returns and opportunity costs start to set in. For most, a fulfilled life can and will come from lesser, but still satisfying achievement. Motivation is the key  – that burning inner drive that makes you do worthwhile things.

My instinct didn’t play well in career terms. I enjoyed teaching, but those who sought to impose institutional conformity came closest to killing it. I think I can say now with confidence, that they nearly killed that which made it work for my students too. When I moved to a place that allowed me more discretion, back surged the enjoyment, motivation and sense of purpose many-fold. And it worked once again, for my students too. To me, that was the whole reason for doing it: the innate joy of good things done well. My sister, meanwhile, followed the accepted route, got to Oxford – and ended up locked into a conformist profession which she hates.

I am reading End State by James Plunkett, in which the former British policymaker examines the broken aspects of modern society. He has included education: both the preoccupation with the young at the expense of the life-long education that he argues is needed for both personal fulfilment and career adaptability in the digital economy – and the problem that it is utterly focused on bureaucratic processes whose ends are extrinsic and short-term. A rigid model, that was not the only conception of education that society could have adopted – and one that seems to me to kill much of what makes education valuable in the first place. It is now so much about ‘process’ that its more freeform aspects have been largely forgotten, or perhaps are no longer understood in the first place.

Plunkett argues that in all policy, ends should drive means, not the inverse, and those ends need to be ethical and humane, not just institutional or economic. A well-educated life needs to be based solidly on the joyous humane curiosity that provides the sustained motivation that externally-driven hoop-jumping mostly does not.

While looking up some finer fiddling points online recently, I found a discussion on, of all places, Mumsnet. It seemed to sum it up: a question from a mother with a child who was learning the classical violin but seemed not be enjoying it. As had I, she seemed to be responding more to the jigs and reels of traditional music. As the parent said: they are lively, but very fast. “What grade should my daughter be at before she tries to play them?” The calibration cart well and truly before the motivational horse.

Cross-posted from my professional blog.

Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Parmesan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It should not be an elite, minority preoccupation.

Opinion & Thought

Shades of Opinion

Many years ago, my wife bought a rather sleek pair of Italian sunglasses (with only a little encouragement from me). But when she first saw them, a close acquaintance remarked, “Those are a hard person’s sunglasses!” A throwaway comment – perhaps – from someone close enough not to cause offence – but I remember it as an example of rather stark social discrimination.

All dark glasses inhibit eye contact – thus compromising a fundamental part of human interaction; I suppose this is why they supposedly make the wearer look cool (for which read distant). But why some sunglasses might be deemed to be more extreme than others, is intriguing – a matter of fine, perhaps-unconscious differentiation (maybe it’s down to how dark they are?). Behind it lie all sorts of assumptions about a relationship between an inert item and the decision of an individual person to own and wear it – and it is this that has given me lasting curiosity about such issues.

It is not clear, for a start, whether the critique was aimed at the glasses or the wearer. The implications are quite different, since one is an evaluation of an inert item, while the other is a potentially hurtful personal criticism. Probably, it is the interplay between the two that is most meaningful – and the hardest to unpick.

The opportunity did not arise to enquire what supposedly made those glasses ‘hard’, what ‘not hard’ ones might look like – nor what new feelings had been provoked about their owner. As our friend knew, my wife is not remotely a ‘hard’ person, so perhaps it was the perceived incongruity that was her point. In fact, the glasses had been chosen simply because their owner liked them, and felt they suited her face particularly well – though it would be disingenuous notto wonder what unconscious awareness also went into that thinking. Were the effect of what we wear unimportant, no one would ever bother to differentiate: like it or not, sunglasses have become more than just a practical means of shading one’s eyes.

Trying to understand what drives our own tastes can be difficult enough, but it’s even more so with others, whose real motives we can often only guess at. To what extent may even our own aesthetic be influenced by its likely impact on others? How much more so with others? Which is more important – our own preference or the desired reaction? Can we even separate them? How much disapproval are we prepared to tolerate for the sake of personal expression? How much deception for the sake of approval? This little incident neatly brings us back to the confusion that repeatedly arises between social and aesthetic ‘language’, and its significance for both personal relations and one’s freedom innocently to do as one chooses.

The exchange of social messages is a hard-wired human behaviour, which human ingenuity has extended into a vast array of new fields. Even by default, everything we do is laden with social meaning – a projection of how we see ourselves, but also in some eyes, of our social and economic status. The variety and sophistication of our means of expression now far outstrip our sensory abilities to differentiate with confidence. (Those sunglasses were produced by Laura Biagiotti, whose founder was a progressive Italian businesswoman – but I doubt they were widely seen as a feminist political statement….)

Thus, misunderstandings arise all the time and there is little we can do about them, for the reading of our own signals is barely in our own hands. It is exceptionally difficult to know how others really perceive us; the only clue we have lies in their outward reactions, which themselves may or may not be sincere. Those reactions are interpreted in a context supplied by the recipient and if that is faulty, the message taken may be quite different from any intended. Appearances can be deceptive – and it is worth remembering that people may under-play as well as the converse… Yet if we attempt conscious control, we can end up imposing a straitjacket on our own choices simply from fear of giving offence or being misunderstood.

Underpinning this may lie a question of trust. Behind the sunglasses comment was perhaps the belief that stylistic naivety is a virtue, and those who do make conscious choices must therefore be revealing something undesirable. For sure, people who knowingly control their outward messages are perhaps more capable of cynical deception than those with less self-awareness, though it does not mean this is always the case. There are sound instinctual reasons to consider this – though it may also be a function of prevailing social norms: those suspicions are not necessarily well-founded, and the errors and suspicions are not necessarily the same everywhere.

In reality, the message might simply be, “I like this”.

It is profoundly difficult to achieve objectivity about the sensory experiences that influence taste, even though we often experience them as a seemingly absolute phenomenon. I suspect it lies in the way which certain things tickle the senses more vigorously than others, which can have a striking effect on the receptive observer. This may be why certain sounds, sights, smells, tastes and feelings elicit stronger reactions than others; things which somehow ‘speak’ to the recipient, and which people often consciously seek out. One’s appreciation may become more refined over time, but the sensations themselves tend to be fairly consistent between individuals. But importantly, receptivity (whether innate or learned) may differ between people.

An aesthete might be defined as someone who deliberately seeks and learns a refined appreciation of such experiences. The rewards are fundamentally internal (which is why people struggle to express them in words) – but it still inescapably involves differentiating between superior and inferior experiences. Over time, discernment can be learned and refined, and perhaps becomes increasingly important for influencing personal decisions.

A status-seeker might be defined as someone who believes they can boost their social standing by the possession and display of rare, valuable and (sometimes) beautiful things. This too implies differentiation – but also an attitude of superiority towards those who do not have them: that is the whole point. It is competitive in a way connoisseurship is mostly not. Often it conflates quality and quantity and places more emphasis on displays of ownership than quiet appreciation. It is perhaps more prone to poor judgement, since its preoccupation is status and external approval, rather than beauty – and there are many overblown, even grotesque, things that in some eyes, at some times, confer status.

But since beauty often also commands a high price, it is at this point that we enter the minefield where social statement and aesthetic merit overlap.

We are so used to associating sumptuousness and ‘luxury’ with high social standing that it can be very difficult to separate the two in our minds – not that certain aesthetic movements, notably modernism, have not tried to point out that beauty can be found in all sorts of simple and non-exclusive things too.

This tendency may be modified by societal contexts. In strongly hierarchical societies, status-seeking is probably more prevalent than in more egalitarian ones. Consequently, one’s acts may well be judged more for their social implications than their aesthetic. Everyday signs of this abound: “That’s posh” is rather different from “That’s beautiful”.

Due to its competitiveness, social differentiation is also likely to be more polarised. It seeks external validation, whereas truly aesthetic judgements are inherently a graded, individual matter, and therefore harder to dismiss. Experience suggests that in Britain, conversation (and hence attention) habitually revolves around social interpretation rather than expressions of individual taste. It is not necessarily the same everywhere.

Savoir-Vivre is not a particularly status-laden term in France. It can apply to doing even simple things with personal style, grace and skill. La Dolce Vita and La bella figura are similar in Italy. It is striking that we do not really have equivalent terms in English – and what’s more, we tend either to lampoon or envy those who manage to embody them.

In France, chic is an aesthetic – but the British have misappropriated the word to make a social statement. Yet none of those phrases is about having: they are about doing or knowing. Quality of life is not something you buy – it is something you create.

Habitual British life is not so much about artfulness as positioning, status and ambition – and where not that, a dull, indifferent uniformity prevails, that refuses to do more than shrug at anything. There are many, many people whose tastes and habits, judging from their behaviour, are indistinguishable. I fail to believe this is because they really are clones – so what is going on?

Accusations of getting “above oneself” can occur anywhere in society where people are thought to be sticking their heads above the parapet, for snobbery is not by any means the preserve of the especially privileged. For the majority who do not want this, ‘taste’ therefore means belonging to a homogenous mainstream whose only real social reference is not to be a snob. Anyone who acts differently risks certain conclusions being drawn…

Another give-away is transience. Societies that are driven by social advancement need fashions to move quickly, since being ahead of the curve is a powerful differentiator: exclusivity depends on keeping the masses at bay, and one way of doing this is through rapid change so that others have no time, money nor inside knowledge to keep up. Fashion drives conspicuous consumption: those who wish to send the ‘right’ social messages may be more prone to rapid shifts in their (current) tastes as they repeatedly gravitate to whatever is on trend.  In reality, it is mostly all just more of the same: robotic consumption with eyes, ears and other senses firmly closed; only social antennae awake. Things that move this quickly never have a chance to register or bond deeply with their owners. Those who are motivated more by personal style may stick to what they like, whether it is currently fashionable or not. Fashions change; styles do not. In Britain, the ephemeral eddies of fashion dominate the social uniform of those who strive to exhibit their ‘class’ – except amongst the elite, who retain an unchanging style all of their own…

The problem is that aesthetes and social signallers often appear to appreciate the same things, albeit for very different reasons. In an opera-house audience, how many people are present because they genuinely love the music, and how many because the moment’s social kudos demands it? Does that piece of art on the wall reflect a deep sensitivity, or an investment opportunity to impress? If you ask someone whether they like Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony and they reply, “Which conductor?” are they being pretentious or knowledgeable? Superficially, it can be impossible to tell – but I suspect that those who are concerned with status simply don’t experience the joy of genuine appreciation.

The problem awakens when these groups encounter each other: the majority will form views on minorities, be they (supposedly) superior or inferior – and minorities may have reciprocal views about the ignorance, banality or superficiality of the mainstream majority. Judgements and criticism may be inferred even when none is intended – usually based on perceived arrogance, condescension, or elitism (though sometimes also coarseness). There is a risk that people may choose to self-exclude from things they would otherwise appreciate, rather than attract adverse comment or challenge their wider self-image or tribal allegiance.

Groupthink can balkanise attitudes and behaviours – and this can certainly curtail individual liberty, particularly for those who step outside prevailing norms for even the most innocent of reasons. Elites tend to define and possess the means to exclude those they wish, but self-exclusion by others – inverted snobbery – only makes the job easier. Status-seeking makes it worse because it hands one’s personal validation over to others. Much better just to define, and stick to, one’s own terms.

Behind the outward disapprobation, I suspect often lies a sense of personal insecurity, or else a sneaking respect for those whose independence of mind allows them to escape or ignore such pitfalls. True appreciation is the innocent celebration of our good fortune, not sulking about what we don’t have. The error is to believe that such people are somehow super-human, rather than simply ordinary individuals who have made the effort to learn, to know and think for themselves – and in the process perhaps become rather less ordinary.

Opinion & Thought

The Passeggiata Paradox

The first of several pieces on personal expression, social pressure and a search for quality.

“You two look smart. Big occasion?”

“We’re just going for the newspaper”, we replied.

The reaction was uncertain – but as a compliment seemed to have been paid, it would have been churlish to be churlish. Yet expectations of normal behaviour had clearly been transgressed…

There is, they say, no accounting for taste. But that’s not true: if anything, there is too much accounting for taste. Trying to figure out what makes people tick is perhaps too complex to fathom – in particular, the dynamic between a simple visible expression of personal preference and the reaction that others have to it. Individual these situations may be, but they bear on us all, affecting what we choose to do – and what wider society will accept our doing.

The passeggiata only works because of the collective will. One person putting on their glad-rags and going for a walk alone of an evening just doesn’t work in the same way. We know, we’ve tried. No one actively prevents us, but the critical mass just isn’t there when everyone else is indoors, glued to the Box. Without them, our passeggiata cannot exist. It is not only individual decisions but also collective ones that determine (even by default) what matters and what does not, what can or cannot happen, even what an individual can easily do. Some things somehow become considered normal, others oddly deviant.

While this might seem trivial, behind it is a complex dynamic around the values and attitudes that shape society, and the serious matter of the ability of individuals and groups within it genuinely to live as they choose. Choices are often straightforward for the mainstream – but for those who step outside it, headway can be difficult enough without the indifference, let alone condemnation, of the majority to make it worse.

There may be more at stake than meets the eye: not all situations are equally benign for the human condition, and societies that find a good balance between belonging and individual free expression are perhaps healthier and happier than more conformist or repressive ones. Key to it is the social interaction that all humans engage in constantly – and the effects that this has on their behaviours. The Passeggiata Paradox, then, is simply my shorthand for the possibly beneficial things that never come to pass, even for those who actively want them, simply because of mass ignorance or indifference. What are we missing, because of it?

In the days when recorded-music shops were more of a thing than they are now, the same issue could be seen at work in the shelf-space given to different types of music. Most was given over to the many sub-divisions of commercial ‘popular’ entertainment-noise that may or may not have musical merit as opposed to being a vicarious route to Celebrity. Other types of music: classical, jazz, folk, early music and so on, were usually relegated to the further reaches with a just a few bays between them, despite the fact that each is probably just as capable of filling an entire shop. (R.I.P. Coda Music, Edinburgh). Thus, one thing became the self-perpetuating ‘norm’ at the expense of (at least) equally deserving others: the interests of one group: “the majority”(?) unwittingly given almost total precedence over others.

The reason for such inequality is a collusion between the herd instinct that assumes that most people would rather seek safety in the crowd than do anything much actively to assert their individuality, and the unregulated commercial interests whom it suits to encourage it to be so. Tribalism is hard-wired into our species; I suppose it saves an amount of thought – and making social errors. Of course, business is entirely happy with this, since it is more profitable to shift large quantities of homogenised lowest-common-denominator to an undemanding mass-market, than to respond to a diverse range of individual preferences. Done skilfully, you can even persuade them that they are still making individual distinctions…

On the rare occasion that the mainstream’s attention is drawn to something more specialist, it will normally be commercialised to make it more “accessible” (read marketable and mass-producible) – thereby losing many of whatever distinctive qualities it had in the first place. Step up, amongst others, almost every themed chain restaurant or cafe in the country… What you get in such places is rarely more than a pastiche.

The habitual solution for those who cannot accept this, has been to resort to specialist providers. But these are often of limited viability (especially when ‘helped’ out of business by the aggressive tactics of the big boys) and frequently beyond the geographical reach of many. The internet may be the saviour of many such minority concerns.

More concerning is the ghettoisation of niche groups that brings the risk of misunderstanding and conflict, and certainly diminishes the scope for crossover and mutual discovery. There are many examples of minorities for whom the consequences have been much more serious than over their choice of music.

One can argue that the freedom with which I supposedly make my choices is precisely the same that others have, to make different ones – but this ignores the fact that one person’s freedom can easily trump another’s.  It is also at odds with my persistent doubts that many personal choices are really anything of the sort. How else can one explain the dominance, in a nation of millions of individual sentient minds, of the overwhelming homogeneity of mainstream taste? Conversation has yet to convince me that many people bring much real thought or conviction to these things and more often just take the line of least resistance, conveniently provided by ‘convention’ – and the mass-market retailers. It might not matter if it did less harm to the interests of the few who think harder…

From our early years we learn that people’s actions have social meaning. It is a fundamental of human psychology to signal and infer identity. Today, this is complex: what and where people eat or purchase, how they dress, what they read and listen to, where they travel, how they furnish their homes, with whom they associate, whom they marry, where they holiday, and pretty much all stops between: everything can be seen as a form of social statement. We can’t avoid it since the message is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, not the sender. Despite (or more likely because of) that, remaining in the herd and playing-safe is a strong driver of behaviour.

This is the logic behind chain retailing: that which is numerically dominant thrives and that which is not, withers. It is the law of the market society – but hardly a recipe for diversity. It doesn’t matter whether what is popular has any inherent merit: majority buy-in is all that counts. But there is a weakness: this can be manipulated. Fashions and trends are rarely really determined as much by popular demand as it seems, but by what suppliers decide they are going to provide. We can’t easily choose what is not available.

Herd behaviour can become a form of oppression of those who have different ideas: either you conform, or your “unviable” needs go unmet. The numbers game is intimidating, and it takes a determined individual to swim for long against a strong social or economic current. It is not helped by the fact that despite their numerical advantage, herds often do not tolerate deviants, being more inclined to drive them out; it is no coincidence that victims of bullying are often those perceived as being “different”. It is true that some people choose to be different precisely to send a certain message – and they may thrive on the adverse reactions they get. But there are others who neither want this, nor indeed the only alternative of going it alone. They simply need a different herd from the only one on offer.

Awareness of “inclusiveness” has grown in recent times – but this is curious and perhaps self-defeating. True inclusiveness is not a matter of low-level homogenisation, but tolerance, pluralism and perhaps cross-fertilisation. Yet society in effect chooses which minorities it will ‘include’ and which it will ignore – which is not inclusiveness at all. Yet there is a contradiction here too: such pluralism might also seem precisely the opposite of the kind of cultural cohesion required to make the passeggiata and other collective experiences work. How to reconcile these opposing forces?

My experience suggests that more egalitarian societies, or those lacking a history of rigid hierarchy, are less socially competitive, and therefore less troubled by those who step outside their norms – or by status-signalling more generally. Or perhaps it is just that their norms are more loosely defined so that people have less need to step outside them in the first place. Some limits to individual freedom are always necessary to avoid breaching the boundaries of legality – but some societies self-impose constraints of social convention or commercial pressure which are much narrower than that.

Despite its self-delusion, Britain is still strongly socially stratified. One cannot grow up here without absorbing an awareness that judgements may be inferred about one’s standing – and worse still, aspirations – from almost everything one does. Wearing a certain tie – or a school uniform – is often a badge of social differentiation rather than anything of much beauty. In Britain, going the opera is likely seen as a social statement whereas in Italy it is more likely to be accepted as a musical choice that cuts across social groups. The minor misunderstanding at the start of this piece derived from an assumption that we were making a deliberate social statement rather than reflecting an innocent personal preference; it was not the first time.

Personal choices and social ambitions are indeed easily confused, as their means of expression can appear identical – but the motives are very different: one seeks intrinsic pleasure, the other extrinsic advantage. Yet it can be extremely difficult to distinguish them, especially when one has been raised in a society that routinely does the opposite.

In this way, we arrive at a situation where it becomes intimidating for individuals to express their real preferences for fear of disapproval or misunderstanding; all the more so when judgements are attached not just to one’s personal choices, but implicitly even to one’s worth as a human being. This may sound extreme, but it is not such a great step in a society where some people are still implicitly considered inherently socially superior to others.

I do not have an insider’s view of the passeggiata: I have only ever participated as a visitor. But as far as I can see, it is not the social straitjacket that it might appear. There is little compulsion to take part. But what it does do is present an opportunity for people to see and be seen if they so wish. Their motives for doing so may be complex but are not, I suspect, primarily avaricious. For a start it takes place in a society where creative, aesthetic self-expression is given greater approval than in Britain; where it may be possible to appreciate (or disapprove of) behaviours and choices without attaching the heavy social condemnation as well. I have noticed the diversity that results – for within that social framework exists the possibility for wide individual interpretation. Sometimes things that appear to constrain freedom have the opposite effect – and vice versa.

The trade-off between the individual and the collective is not the same everywhere; there is no single “right” answer, even though some solutions may be more benign than others. Neither, despite its conservatism, is the UK uniquely cursed: for example, the beacon of social liberalism that is Denmark has also been criticised as a subtly conformist form of hell – and the anarchy of the free-for-all has clear downsides too… Perhaps conservative cultures are more likely to pass social judgements than others, but even in Italy, for all the strong currents of individual flamboyance, there co-exists a distinct thread of social conservatism.

Norms change over time: when everyone else is wearing jeans and hoodies, it is the necktie-wearer who is the rebel.  The best trade-off is perhaps where people freely make their own choices, but still choose to participate because they do not feel unduly constrained by doing so. Only when people can participate reasonably on their own terms will they do so willingly and unselfconsciously. The key to this is tolerance and understanding from everyone else.

The problem for the British (and nations like them) is that they do not recognise their own conformism: it is hidden by the fact that so few step outside it.  When it does happen, it is often in violent or destructive ways that seem the only way to make it register: the conformity of rebellion by getting wrecked every Friday night – which is not rebellion at all…

It is reinforced by those commercial interests: it is easier to appeal to people’s groupthink and snobbery than their individuality. Products are advertised on their supposed exclusivity or sophistication rather than their intrinsic appeal. Even when that depends on an inverted form of snobbery, the mechanism is the same. And life-events such as weddings are widely planned primarily for their social impact, sometimes at the cost of aesthetic crassness. And of course, it is precisely in such circumstances that the two are most hopelessly confused, for a wedding remains perhaps the worst place to make a social faux pas.

The dominance of mainstream culture makes it harder for those who operate by different criteria to live and act the way they choose, without fear of misunderstanding, or worse. It reaches its censorious head when attitudes balkanise into prejudice and hostility.

But we should perhaps remember that all people have their foibles, and therefore it is perhaps unwise not to accommodate minorities: at some point, we may find that the minority is not others: it is Us.