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 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 that (as Orson Welles observed) 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 I 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.

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, bipartisan terms. 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 and progressiveness.

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”. No clearer expression of this is needed than the money being spent 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.

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 greater protection. 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.

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 need nothing more than a simplistic binary answer 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.

Food, Opinion & Thought

It’s a scoop!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion & Thought

Filling the void

I guess it’s my professional background that is to blame – you can’t really function as a teacher without thinking of the issue of ‘life chances’. When you do a job that largely lacks a clear relationship between inputs and outputs, it is necessary to understand one’s purpose in the longer term. But I’m far from certain that the notion enjoys wide currency amongst those about whom teachers spend so much time thinking. I wonder how many people would consider themselves to be living a life which is mostly of their own determining.

I have recently been trying to help a long-standing friend deal with mental health difficulties, who seems to have had just such a problem. Having “been there” myself, I feel that only those who have been, can really understand it. But it doesn’t make being helpful much easier; the essence of such difficulties is that they distort one’s perception of everything else. Unlike, say, a stomach-ache, where at least one can identify the source of the distress, mental pain projects itself onto everything else, and conceals its true self behind that. It is like wearing a pair of grey glasses: they make the whole world look grey – but it is all too easy to forget that the problem lies with the glasses, not the rest of the world. Hence part of the problem with mental health can be identifying its true source – which may not lie where you think it does. And in turn, this can make it all the more difficult to identify what needs to be done: the temptation is to aim at the smoke rather than the flame…

Such difficulties may be a mixture of inheritance and background. There may not be much we can do about the former – but I suspect that we do nowhere near enough about the latter. As with physical health, we need to set up good habits early in life. But for all the talk about mental health, I wonder how much is being done to make that possible. Prime amongst these should come encouraging people to understand that they can act positively to develop their own selves, where they can cultivate all aspects of their personal identity and needs.

The neglect starts young: many young people are supervised by ‘helicopter’ adults for every moment of their waking lives. My friend seems to have had an early experience of this: she attended a minor public school which, by virtue of its boarders, operated a seven-day week, and made almost as many demands on the day-pupils (of which she was one) as those who lived ‘in’. From an early age, her life was dominated by the externally imposed demands of not only academic work, but sporting and musical life. Combined with high parental expectations, this perhaps leaves little opportunity for young people just to be alone with their thoughts, to learn to understand themselves, and to explore their own tastes and priorities. I suspect that the relief from the treadmill that many say they experienced during lockdown tells an important story here.

My friend was successful, eventually gaining an Oxford degree, and entering a demanding profession in which she has worked ever since. Even from a distance, I could see that her work dominated her life (not that mine as a teacher did not try to, as well…). She admits that her work came to be her main, even only, source of personal validation. In my case, I refused point-blank to let that be the case. There is just too much living to be done to allow that – and I never did see the point of living to work. After all, our masters, who urge us to do so often do not practise what they preach…

The problem with living to work is that those “life chances” become externally-defined – the meeting of targets, the acquisition of wealth and status, the progression of one’s career – or at very least, the pinning of one’s self-esteem solely on the competence with which one does one’s job. As with schooling, the modern workplace leaves precious little time for people to create their own meaning of Self.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much, if one is content to live one’s life on others’ terms. Be they inherited from one’s family, or the work-ethic inherited from one’s schooling or workplace, if you narrow your horizons and close off your curiosity, it may provide an adequate if pedestrian life, so long as you Play The Game.

But sometimes, The Game plays you. In both my friend’s case and my own, we found ourselves in workplaces whose toxic culture knew no limits, that ate people whole, chewed them up and if they resisted, spat the remains back out again. The stress of this experience is enough to endanger anyone’s mental health – and that, in both of our cases, it did.

The day when one can no longer do one’s job, a huge hole opens up in life; not only the loss of direction or a defined “role”, but also a large amount of time that needs to be filled. Particularly if one is struggling mentally, this can be difficult; as some found during lockdown, it is frightening how willingly the underoccupied mind fills that void with all sorts of terrors.

This is where the lack of prior thinking can be problematic. If you have become a live-to-work type, you risk having invested so much in that aspect of life that you neglected the rest of it. Who and what are you – really – when you are not at work? When work fills the day (and the mind) you can avoid this question for years, but when work stops, it can be hard to ignore.

My friend thinks that it began early in her life; even during school holidays, the conditioning made her struggle to cope with the absence of ready-made, work-orientated routine. Even her musical and other activities assumed the status of quasi-work – a mad rush to fulfil a large number of commitments that she had felt she had to accept. Listening to her some years ago, even non-work had started to sound like an extension of her job.

Perhaps many people live their entire lives like this: on autopilot. Filling their lives with busy-ness to avoid ever having to address the existential questions about their own meaning. Leisure sounds good, but in reality, can be a problem, unless you take active charge of what you do with it. I suspect that the British psyche adds problems: it is all too easy in this country to conflate positive living with social climbing or the precious pampering of the celebs. Outwith a certain privileged and self-obsessed minority, it is just not done to be too upbeat about how one lives. As a nation, we seem obsessed with the perceived grandeur of superior lives, and yet we often take little care with our own.

But I think there is a difference between self-indulgence and simply making an active decision to try to live well. It can equally be argued that to neglect active thinking about our lives is to waste the most precious asset that we have: life itself. Somewhere in there lies the contradictory legacy of a guilty, Puritan past in which pleasure was a sin… I suspect it lies in neither the entitlement of privilege nor the mindlessness of the herds that many seek to lose themselves in even when not at work; both are the antithesis of the balanced, authentic individual.

We cannot avoid having to dress, to eat, needing homes, interacting with our fellows, even consuming at some level. So we might as well do them well, gratefully, carefully and with enjoyment (however we define it). The mindful pleasure of doing something well generally far exceeds the saved hassle from not bothering. The problem is that this requires more effort than many seem either prepared to make, or to have time and energy left for. Somewhere, this appreciation needs an awokennness to the physical sensations of the world, which again exhaustion or distraction – or that protestant denial – so easily blunts in us.

My go-to psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi concluded that the principal source of human fulfilment is the self-challenge that leads to increasing competence and complexity of being. This is why it is worth taking almost any aspect of life beyond the basic. The problem in Britain is that the connoisseurs or cognoscenti who do so are regarded with inverted snobbery, rather than respected for their insight. True, affectation can reinforce a certain impression, but once again we confuse genuine expertise with social display. Yet such insight is open to anyone who makes the effort.

There are, of course, plenty of individuals who do take mindful care of their lives – but I suspect they are still vastly outnumbered by those who don’t. What is more, neglect seems to have become the definition of normality. The overwhelming message is “convenience” – for which read “anything that requires only the minimum of thought or effort”. Don’t try hard. (But let’s not forget that real sprezzatura requires effort….)

I feel thankful now that over the years I found I had to reject this thinking. It meant heading into fields that were, in terms of my upbringing, quite unfamiliar territory; drawing lines around my working life and sometimes stepping outside the norms of my peers. It is undeniable that this set up conflicts that eventually gave me problems. But I remain adamant that a balanced and thoughtfully fulfilled life is both a reasonable aspiration, and in fact makes for a more contented and productive working life as well. In the longer term, it served me well when my own working life collapsed and threatened to take my sanity and sense of self with it.

I pointed this out to my suffering friend; sadly, I got the impression that she rejects it as a kind of vanity – a form of fake “lifestyle” whose purpose is social display or furtherment.

I see it as a matter of authenticity. However, it is true that the similar calculations are done by some simply to impress and can indeed be inauthentic. They may superficially appear the same, but I think there are two differences. One is in the mind: a simple matter of personal honesty about one’s motives, whether other people understand or not. The second is consistency; a sure sign of inauthenticity is tastes that change with the winds of social status and fashion. They are likely to be characterised by superficiality, whereas true passions are ones that encourage you to delve deeper, to find greater complexity and discernment. Passing fads never achieve that.

An excellent example of this is male dress, from which this blog takes its title. There is a world of difference between a man who genuinely appreciates a fine, timeless aesthetic no matter what his means, and those who seemingly do the same things, but just to exhibit their wealth and status. The same can be said for food, travel, homes and almost any aspect of what for some is “lifestyle” but for others, just Life.

I consider myself lucky that I had somehow figured a lot of this out by the time my own zero-hour arrived. It didn’t protect me entirely from the demands of over-work; my professional life (and mental health) came crashing down about five years ago as a result of overwhelming workplace stress. But through all the difficulties that followed, I am certain that all the other elements of the life I have built were my safety net: the things that remained constant even as other things lurched all over the place. They anchored my sense of who and what I am and have continued to do so as I recovered. What’s more, my appetite for that life filled the hours that suddenly opened up in the space where Work had been.

This is not about specifying any particular way of life, but about settling who we are to our own satisfaction and fulfilment, rather than living to please or impress others, or just to keep them off our backs. In the end, it is a matter of being true to oneself; that includes drawing the line at those things in life that seek to take us over, to define us solely in their own terms, to the neglect of who we really are. It is not narcissistic to try to find a stable balance between our obligations to others and a delimitation of our own rightful individuality. All the more so when those others believe they can invade so much of our lives that there is nothing left for ourselves – and most of all at times of need.

Teachers spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about their students’ life chances; in reality, we might achieve better results by helping and encouraging more people to think harder about their own – and hopefully redefining them as something more than the live-to-work outlook that can do such harm.  I hope my friend is reading.

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Consume – lovingly

Trying to be an ethical and ‘green’ consumer is like walking through a minefield. The complexity of modern production makes it, in many cases, almost impossible to identify the full impact of one’s choices. I’m not sure I trust the labelling to tell the whole story, either; it has just become another aspect of marketing.

I have long pondered the sustainability of Sprezzatura: an unconfessed guilt – or at least doubt – that the principle of discerning consumption could be morally and ecologically acceptable. Choosing superior products as a matter of principle can seem like unreasonable self-indulgence, particularly at a time when the environmental impact of human activity is becoming ever more extreme.

The materials and methods that are sometimes required to produce refined products can involve the disproportionate exploitation of scarce resources, perhaps sourced from obscure places, and manufacturing, to keep costs down, by people paid low wages and living in terrible conditions. Such is the reputation of the sweat shop.

Recent research for a couple of clothing items led me to further suspect that another trend is not helping matters: it seems that the middle-market is being hollowed out. I have trawled quite widely for the items concerned – and my conclusion, not for the first time, is that the choice on offer is increasingly between low-end disposable junk and a high end whose prices are heading for the stratosphere, thus taking better quality goods out of the reach of much of the population.

The most breath-taking example of this was at Brunello Cucinelli – where I happened on a price tag of £1300 for…. a credit card holder. While there are no doubt people out there who will pay this without batting an eyelid, it surely represents the ultimate divorce of any proportion whatsoever between utility and price.

This is only the extreme, however. I can accept that I may simply be failing to keep up with the impact of inflation; as a state employee, my income was always fixed, beyond my direct influence, and relatively modest. It has no doubt been eroded by the pubic sector pay-freeze of the past ten years – and certainly by the change in my own personal circumstances. But even allowing for all that, my impression is that prices at the better end are soaring away from me. A couple of decades ago, we were able – occasionally – to pay out on expensive items, such as one of Bang & Olufsen’s more modest sound systems – and even the occasional small purchase from favourite labels such as Armani. Today, it’s an impossibility. No doubt the premium that such brands have increasingly found they can command is part of it, as is the willingness of the economic elite to pay whatever it takes to preserve their exclusivity.

This might sound like the first-world problems of a self-indulgent whiner, but there is rather more to it than that; Quite apart from my innocent appreciation of good quality, cheap products so often represent a false economy – at least as much so as slavish adherence to outrageously over-priced ‘labels’. So I was pleased to find that my recent reading of JB MacKinnon’s The Day the World Stops Shopping provided sensible support for my views.

From the ethical standpoint, the key point is this: buying good quality (whether sporting a desirable label or not) is often less harmful than the mass-production throw-away alternative. Our B&O system is still doing good service twenty years later, as is our rather-more-expensive-than-IKEA Italian kitchen, most of our other furnishings and indeed quite a number of those clothes. Being well-made, they aren’t unduly showing their age – and we still love them. For what it’s worth, we apply the same purchasing principle to what we eat, though the price point is obviously rather different, and the goods don’t last as long…

As MacKinnon points out, it’s about a mindset. Much of the really harmful consumption is done by those who purchase almost as a reflex; who use items only a few times, if at all, before junking them in favour of newer ones. The alternative (which with satisfaction I noted we have always done) it to know your own deeper needs and preferences. It is about consuming mindfully, no matter what the item concerned. I suppose another word for this is discernment. This means that you will probably set a much higher bar for purchases made, will think hard about the choices and sources, be more prepared to hunt them down, and identify things that you will still like perhaps a decade later (and hence have no need to throw away). As a result you will make fewer but better purchases; in the long run, it need not be more expensive – and it’s as much about minimising waste.

Pleasingly, I think this is entirely in the spirit of Sprezzatura. It means being in charge of one’s own consumption decisions, doing the necessary work to fulfil one’s needs and desires – and having the discipline of mind to live with one’s decisions. As MacKinnon points out, well-made, pleasing items are ones that often age gracefully, and to which one can develop an attachment that will not fade after a few weeks. This is certainly the case with the items I mentioned earlier. And crucially, it results in the lowering of one’s consumption. Apparently, the typical U.K. consumer buys at least several tens of items of clothing per year, and many are only worn once or twice. I buy perhaps two or three items a year – and wear them for many to come. In that sense, not only is the increased outlay offset, but we throw much less away.

I am fairly sanguine about the sourcing of such items. Many years ago, I came to the conclusion that regular trails round the local high streets were pointless in terms of finding much I was prepared to part with cash for; particularly when the outlay is relatively great, I want to be absolutely sure that it is 100% what I have in mind, and the high street chains just did not do that. I cannot shed many tears for their passing.

I am much more prepared to shop online if necessary, to fulfil that criterion. Here again, there is a choice: one can patronise the large conglomerates, or one can seek out the smaller producers who in some cases just happen not to be local. Labels may be all very well, but often the ones you’ve never heard of are pretty good – and better value.

The inflated prices are being driven by the large multinationals, and it is not necessarily the case that smaller producers all charge high-end prices, though it is true that craftsmanship and good quality do cost more. It does mean doing the mouse-work to find them, but I would rather support an independent tailor in Bangalore or leatherworker in Florence than a large corporation that just happens to have a local outlet. Transport costs are an issue – but I concluded that since many of the high street goods are coming from the same countries in any case, I might as well cut out the middle-man and select the people I wish to patronise myself.

The clothing item in the header picture is one such – a pair of made-to-measure linen trousers that I recently bought from a company in India, which cost little more than a much-inferior pair would on the high street – and which will probably last me for years if previous examples are anything to go by. Such manufacturers are becoming increasingly good at guiding self-measurement and material choices online, and in this case, I took advantage of much-lowered prices, presumably because people are currently wary about buying from India. Apart from an apparent logistics error that sent them from India to the UK via Cincinnati of all places, there would have been little difference in the transport impact – and I have hopefully paid a better wage to those who made them as a result.

There has been much speculation of the impact of the pandemic in moving so much more activity online. I think that will depend not on the mechanics so much as the mindset. If it results in further growth in mindless consumption, as does seem likely, it will undoubtedly be harmful; if on the other hand it makes people think more about what they consume, it need not be.

MacKinnon explained the Japanese word aiyosha – which means “a person who uses a product lovingly”. It is not a rejection of materialism, but about forming a deeper relationship with one’s possessions such that one does not feel the constant need to replace them. That can include accepting that they age – and if they are well-made that need not be a problem. I think this is entirely in keeping with this blog’s philosophy of careful, discerning appreciation of the good things in life.

The appreciation of material quality need not be a source of guilt. The amount of money spent on an item is irrelevant if the intention is only to use it superficially, and ditch it before its time. On the other hand, being aiyosha can be a source of genuine pleasure in our lives. Appreciating quality and individuality are part of that, as is accepting that things will not look new forever. What is more, well-made items are more likely to be repairable, thus extending both their lives and our enjoyment.

I find the search for items that I really like is itself enjoyable, even though it mostly now happens online. It is a world away from the mindless waving of plastic in cloned local “outlets” on a dull Saturday afternoon; the anticipation of delivery is part of the experience, and the revelation of the product when it arrives (usually) a great pleasure. Quite often, small suppliers are still managing to provide a personal touch, such as the hand-written note from a musician in Ireland from whom I recently bought her latest CD, even if it is not quite what one sometimes receives in person in specialist shops.

The real enemy here is mass, planned obsolescence; it is nonetheless what makes the junk economy go round. It also supports millions of jobs world-wide. There undoubtedly rests a huge responsibility on the commercial sector here: if it produces products that are designed to break, while simultaneously pushing the price of higher quality ones beyond the reach of most people, that will make aiyosha, and responsible consumption more difficult – and the result will be ecologically catastrophic. MacKinnon found signs that some companies are re-evaluating their approach, but it is still far from becoming universal.

There is also a responsibility on all of us as consumers: no matter what our price-point, the principle of buying (less frequently) the best we can afford rather than the cheapest we can find still holds. With a shift in our thinking, we can still appreciate good things, while turning it to the benefit of both better-rewarded producers, and the global environment.


Footnote: literally within minutes of posting this article, I was informed by a shirt-supplier in Italy that despatch to the U.K. is suspended because of Brexit. A minefield indeed…

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Silver lining?

Five and more years ago, as Brexit and other issues of the post-2008 crash world gathered an alarming pace, I like others found myself wondering, with some fear, what it was all leading to. It was not uncommon for parallels to be drawn with the eras pre-both world wars when things also seemed to be getting out of control. In a sense, we were right – something was coming – though of a nature that few suspected, and it was certainly something that cannot in its primary causes, be called a political crisis. Nonetheless, a crisis it was, and it certainly had a political dimension.

JB MacKinnon’s new book The Day the World Stops Shopping is part of a growing lexicon discussing what will be the shape of the post-pandemic world. He suggests that there have been several times in history where staring into an abyss was necessary to stimulate a ‘correction’ in the direction of humanity’s travel; maybe this is another. In which case, I suggest we have got off lightly – but I still hope he is right.

The Guardian’s architecture critic, Rowan Moore, has also picked up on beneficial changes that may come from the Flight from the Office. Just maybe, some good will come of this ‘new localism’ for our hitherto madly imbalanced and atomised nation. By way of examples, here are some ways in which we, and our small community in East Anglia have been affected.

Five years ago, health considerations forced me to leave full-time employment. Like many, I had commuted out of our town each day, to work thirty miles away. What I never saw until that point was how deserted the place was during weekdays – populated very largely and scantly by the elderly – and young mothers. When I was on holiday, it was by definition the school holidays, which were, themselves untypical of the normal situation.

Particularly when a local convenience store moved to the edge of the town, the centre which a few years previously had always been if not buzzing, then certainly occupied, became practically deserted for hours on end. Since many people started working from home, this has noticeably changed. The regular Thursday market has never been so popular, with several new stalls appearing in recent months.

The photos (top and below – taken on a rather dull day) show two recent developments.

The greengrocer was doing such good business that he has now occupied a vacant shop, renovated it nicely, and now has a seven-day presence in the town: a good, useful local addition that will hopefully endure. The local travel agent also closed during the pandemic, and has not re-opened. In its place, a group of locals has pooled resources and opened a café which also supplies artificial flower arrangements. They opened just before the latest lockdown – but an outside kitchen window – what became known as the Cake Hole (on the left in the picture) – meant that they were able to serve take-away drinks and cakes throughout, while also renovating their inside seating space. They have single-handedly revived the town centre, with outdoor tables and nearby seating pretty much continually occupied during good weather. Passing groups of walkers and cyclists are also making regular pit-stops, and they have further plans for being even more of a community hub. Our town centre once again is an actively ‘inhabited’ place.

Less tangible, but still noticeable, is the sense that somehow the place is less deserted during the week than it used to be. There are more people visibly working at home and popping out into the streets as they need. The whole place feels a little more lived-in, in the way one senses in more clearly vibrant places often not in the U.K.

Changes have also affected us personally. While I now go out to teach again, just twice a week, my wife changed her employment over the winter, becoming a civil servant. Her new employer is in Nottingham, some 130 miles or two and a half hours away. But it has been agreed that she will work permanently from home, with just the occasional trips to H.Q., thus allowing her to accept a position that would previously either been unviable or have meant an unplanned relocation. Others in her team are in Bristol, Newcastle and South Wales, and our home often echoes to a cocktail of (admittedly disembodied) regional accents…

In my own case, most of my non-classroom activity now takes place at home (as it often did, but not any longer during the evenings and weekends…) and I communicate with my students and colleagues remotely. I wonder whether there is a template here that could help to address the risks of burnout in the teaching profession, that ‘got’ me back in 2016.

I wonder how many times this story will be replayed over the coming years, and it may lead for many to improved job opportunities and greater job satisfaction, yet without the need to relocate. It is potentially very good news for all those small places up and down the country, that have been hollowed out in recent years to become dormitory settlements. My wife is now another person present during the day, while the loss of her commute means a combination of more productive time and more to engage in the community where she actually lives. We also (happily!) spend more time together, not least over morning coffee and lunch most days. And we no longer need to get up at ungodly hours.

Despite the social pressure during the last decade or two to claim that one lived for one’s work, it seems that these changes have revealed the truth: far fewer really relished office life or the long commutes that if often required. Maybe this is the opportunity we needed for a real, substantial improvement in the quality of British life.

In many ways, our work-life balance has improved hugely as a result; it is true that not everyone (including teachers) can work permanently from home – but the shift that has occurred has affected enough people that is has still has brought wider benefits, and may yet bring more, if it can become embedded. (It occurred to me some days ago that before the industrial revolution, many people worked at home, so in a sense, this is just a return to a much older way of doing things). We could go a lot further: MacKinnon’s book concerns much wider ecological actions; perhaps this is just the beginning. With any luck, this is the point at which we can start to appreciate the quality of life, rather than just the quantity, as he argues we need to, in order to become properly sustainable.

 Perhaps we have finally learned that life on the hamster wheel is neither very desirable nor beneficial. In which case, the pandemic will be proved to have a real silver lining.