Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

In praise of neckwear

Maybe we need a bit of frivoli-tie? Recent posts here have largely been about the gravity of our present situation; hardly escapable really, but I think we need to keep something for the lighter, but still intriguing side of life too. So this post is about the globally-serious matter that is the demise of the male necktie.

I have little doubt that I will end up convincing readers of nothing more than the fact that I am one kipper short of the full cravatte, but nonetheless, such gentle matters pertaining to the quality of life of at least some of us should, I believe, command an occasional place in our attention.

My father spent most of his working life showing young people the methods of craftsmanship and design that came from his teacher training in practical subjects and as a cabinet maker. After hours, he switched to the tennis court, as was a qualified coach. But he refused to allow anyone to participate in either activity if they were not properly dressed. In his view this was again a largely practical matter, but he nonetheless maintained that you would not do your best work unless you felt the part – and an important part of that was being decked out appropriately. For tennis, it was whites or nothing.

I guess it rubbed off; I have always dressed for my own work in what I felt to be a manner of suitable gravitas, and I think there was probably more than one occasion where looking the part played to my advantage, even if I didn’t fully deserve it… I think I had learned to appreciate good craftsmanship, too.

So it has been a pleasure, on returning to professional work, to bring out items that had barely seen the light of day for some years. Despite the pretty relaxed approach of most of the staff at the College where I work, I make a point of wearing what was once considered normal professional garb, albeit notched down a peg or two to jacket-and-tie rather than a suit.  I do it partly as a matter of forme professionelle – but mainly just because I like those clothes.

The sad thing is, opportunities to wear such items have been in free-fall in recent times; for many, I suspect that weddings and funerals, and perhaps interviews, are the only occasion when they don an otherwise unfamiliar item.

Dress-down Friday seems increasingly to have invaded the rest of the working week in recent years, and of course remote working means you can get away with almost anything. Ironically, given that DDF is originally an American invention, at least a proportion of the men of that nation still seem to pay more regard to sartorial matters than we Brits, and while the same trend has clearly spread to continental Europe, the still-present preoccupation of French and Italian males in particular with sartorial form is of course legendary.

Yet in these times of individual liberty, dress-down has had a contrary effect: anyone wishing to raise their game a bit in this respect increasingly easily risks looking over-stuffed and out of place. The necktie suffers particularly badly here: they have become the symbol par excellence of old-fashioned male formality, and therefore inconsistent with the laid-back modern dude… Many men seem to hate them, so they are the first thing to go, but I am not sure why. Are they really that uncomfortable? It is all the more surprising, since other neck-accessories such as scarves seem to have experienced boom times recently. Perhaps it’s the conno-tie-tions with workplace conformism that is the real issue here? But we should remember that there is more than one way to ‘wear’ a tie, and that those emblems of the Sixties social revolution, The Beatles, were often photographed wearing (and indeed performing in) them. Studiedly narrow, of course.

I think the thing that appeals to me about the tie is its potential for a degree of personal expression – and I’m not only thinking of certain messages sent by comic ties… Originally, the tie was the centrepiece of a man’s at-tie-re. It’s really about the potential for subtle signalling. Socks have the same potential, and they too have been experiencing a significant resurgence of interest in recent times. So why not ties?

Maybe the relaxation of sartorial diktat means that there is no need for such small acts any more – though that doesn’t explain the renewed popularity of those other accessories. Maybe it simply comes down to comfort? Because there is no doubt that a tie and done-up top button feels less relaxed than people seem to prefer nowadays; I am not suggesting I would want to sit at home in one, either. But not all occasions are the same.

That loss of signalling ability has further-reaching implications, of which perhaps the most significant is the loss of a sense of occasion that can accompany dressing well. I remember the writer Michael Bywater saying that doing so is not narcissistic, but a courtesy to others since it is largely they who gain the pleasure from your efforts. It says you think they are worth it; perhaps we no longer do.

What’s more, the way in which a tie is worn sends subtle mood-messages, from the simple-or-showy choice of knot, to the semi-undone end-of-evening, worse-for-wear effect. And that is before even considering the effect of bow-ties, whether hand- or ready-tied, done or undone and just draped round the neck; there is a world of subtle social signalling about the tie that is simply lost to the non-wearer.

A tie is a relatively inexpensive way of turning a set of standard garments into a different outfit, and in that sense no different from using jewellery or other accessories to the same effect. I am less keen on some of the symbolism – the Old School Tie and the Regimental Tie both have connotations that I find stiff and undesirable – but there is the simple matter of an appreciation of beautiful colour and pattern; the tie as minor artwork, simply an item of wearable beauty – and why should men be deprived of this?

I remember once shocking a colleague by admitting that I was prepared to spend a fair amount of money on something that he saw as a complete waste. A cheap tie is very likely not to be worth it and will quickly end up looking like a rag round your neck. A properly crafted one, on the other hand is indeed a minor work of art. Hand-made ties have five, six or seven folds, and this gives them a ‘body’ and artisanal effect without the need for interlining, that a slip of mass-produced viscose just cannot match. It means they will hang well, even after long and repeated wearing; the best have a runner thread the length of the reverse, pulling on which will straighten out any crumples at the end of the day. Personally, I feel that silk is the optimal material, since a beautiful tie needs to hang close to the body, and move well with that body; but wool, linen and even leather all have their place. I think that woven-in patterns are preferable to printed designs since they are somehow more integral with the fabric which gives rise to them and give a pleasing relief to the texture.

But perhaps most important thing of all is the almost infinite scope that ties give to the material craftsman for beauty of design, whether variations on the traditional themes, or indeed complete innovation; whether in weaving, printing or dyeing. Quite apart from anything else, such craftsmanship is a pleasure to collect and own.

As with so many of these things, the Italians are the masters, and seem relatively unencumbered by the starchy conventions of the British style. It is possible to spend crazy amounts of money on ties from classic makers such as Emarinella of Naples – but an astute purchaser can also find hand-made items much more reasonably from lesser-known makers such as Segni e Disegni in Como, the centre of Italian silk.

My guiding principle is that one doesn’t need a lot of ties – but as with almost all things, a few good quality ones are a pleasure to own and wear, and I think it is high tie-me for a revival.

I just wish more people agreed with me…

Opinion & Thought

Down with the “poncey middle class” view

A recent post by another teacher on social media expressed the hope that children supposedly being “deprived” of their education by lockdown will use the opportunity to learn about wider life experiences, and the growth to be gained from appreciating simple and immediate things, such as the natural world, the value of human relationships, creative activities, basic domesticity and cultivating one’s inner awareness. In a wider sense, it suggested, perhaps those who are learning this are not “falling behind” – but are in fact ahead of the rest.

It was followed by predictable comments about this being “all very well for the privileged middle classes” – which seems to be becoming the default criticism of anything that does not meet the approval of a certain right-on sector of the profession, and indeed society more widely.

It increasingly strikes me that there is a huge hypocrisy going on here, which – well-meaning or not – actually serves to perpetuate the social divisions that such people claim to decry. It is based on the assumption that everyone else subscribes – or should subscribe – to the aspirations of those expressing them, and that if they don’t then they are to be pitied or fretted about.

Such views are in themselves a form of social condescension; charitably, perhaps an expression of bleeding-heart guilt at the motor of middle-class social climbing, but which in the process serves to embed perceived social exclusion in those not able or not wishing to follow them. Even if I am wrong about this, the plight of the under-privileged is, in any case, surely not the only benchmark against which everything should be judged, any more than is the achievement of middle-class values the only indicator of success.

Many of the ‘simple’ things mentioned in the original comment actually have very little to do with middle class privilege; it struck me that most of them would be eminently realisable in the average African village, and it is perhaps not beyond the realm of credibility to suggest that people in such a place might indeed know more about the simple pleasures of life than many in the West credit. There have been plenty of studies suggesting that, barring the presence of food shortages, conflict, natural disasters or ill health, happiness levels often hold up quite well in the materially poorer parts of the world, perhaps even better than in places where Status Anxiety is more rife. The belief that it cannot but be otherwise is itself a privileged middle-class conceit.

In just the same way, it is entirely a middle-class conceit to believe that “poor people” in this country inevitably suffer from not being able to access the hyper-competitive, hyper-materialistic world of those who occupy it. I would not for a moment wish to underestimate the impact of real deprivation and hardship where it exists, but reaction to this serious problem is in danger of becoming used as little more than an inverted expression of middle-class angst, or a form of virtue signalling. I suspect that ‘the poor’ may suffer as much from the effects of the social pressures that such attitudes apply, than from their own circumstances. Happiness is largely a product of relative expectations.

When it comes to education, who are really the deprived? Middle-class servitude to high levels of material consumption – large vehicles, large mortgages and the large incomes needed to service them – are also a form of slavery, and those in hoc to it see education as little more than the process of validation needed to ensure their offspring continue in it. I have seen too many bad effects of hot-housing and competitive parenting to believe that it is only benign; and the cries of children ‘falling behind’ with their education are only based on assumptions of what is “not behind”, that are dictated entirely by the exam calendar and achieving the “right” (exam) results to ensure they can progress to the next stage of the conveyor belt, and ultimately to their own position in the social pecking-order. Those doing the complaining often seem to be those most locked-in to the hot-housing mentality – and perhaps least able to see the harm it can cause; the hysteria with which they often react is, to me, more indicative of those addicted to Status Anxiety than those of an excessively tolerant disposition.

Education in the U.K. (if not elsewhere) has long been dominated by middle-class social climbing, and it seems at least as bad now as ever. Widespread assumptions about the nature and necessity of education are themselves culturally dependent, and still remain driven by the societal advances that it can deliver, rather than any kind of self-development.

The teaching profession is just as guilty of this as the materially better-rewarded parts of the middle class – and their concern is now compounded by the pressures brought to bear by a system that determines their own career and income prospects by crude measures of exam outcomes.

The problem is, by perpetuating angst about Status Anxiety, and stressing about things that may compromise it, those doing it both exaggerate the divides between those who do and don’t subscribe to it and perpetuate their own captivity to a set of values that may not be as beneficial as they believe. And then they compound the matter further by insisting that there is no other valid perspective. This is not, of course, to suggest that formal education is not important, nor that the loss of specific tuition, for example in basic skills such as literacy is not seriously concerning – but there is still more to education than that.

It may be that early appreciation of “the simple life” came from privileged and rather precious members of the Very Rich who had little concept of what it really means. But that does not need to diminish the concept itself; there is plenty from cultures around the world to suggest that the deluded ones are those who continuously chase material advancement, whereas true fulfilment lies in much simpler and more eternal truths, the rediscovery of which the slowing of our hyperactive world may indeed have created space for. This need not only be possible in overheated, over-anxious middle-class environments; indeed, it may be more possible elsewhere. Who are the real prisoners here?

The most regrettable thing for me is that Education has been not only misappropriated by those in society who advance its use for fuelling Affluenza, but that that now includes the educational establishment itself. One might have hoped that it would not have sold its soul in this way and would have retained more enlightened and pluralistic views about its purpose. For me, education has always been about liberating people to make their own informed decisions about life, not about tying them into a socio-economic rat-race that does at least as much harm to people’s wellbeing as good.

If we set aside the sometimes-precious tones of those who are suggesting that lockdown may not, in general, be as educationally catastrophic as others are claiming, then the message may be worth considering. As with everything, this should be a chance for reflection: does education as it currently is, have its objectives, processes and methods right? Or should we at least be considering more fairly the alternative views? To my mind, the dogmatism with which they are currently being rejected is itself evidence of the failure of education as presently configured to develop sufficient open-mindedness with respect to what is really desirable in life.

As I said, who are really deprived?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Not the end.

You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.

Similarly, you can’t choose the nation you were born into – but there’s nothing that says you have to like it.

A couple of years ago, at the height of the ‘Brexit wars’, I declared that if Brexit ever happened, I would disown my nationality. I was fully expecting, today, to be eating my words – not because it didn’t happen, but because the futility of such a position would become overwhelming.

You can’t deny where you were born, and even if you do take different nationality, that place and your formative years there will continue to shape you throughout your life. Neither can you ignore the practicalities of the place where you live, which for personal and practical reasons will continue, for me, to be Great Britain.  It is not possible to ignore the requirements of one’s place of abode, so I will have little choice but to comply with the obligations of life this country.

Yet I am not going to eat my words – not out of pedantry, but because I find that they accurately reflect the reality of my life, and a process that has in fact been going on for many years. I find myself living in a country with whose regular culture, values and destiny I feel little affinity. All Brexit has done is to affirm that once and for all.

There were three defining points of my life in this respect: our childhood caravan holidays the length and breadth of the continent later followed up through Interrail; my deepening acquaintance from the mid-1980s with that most contradictory of European nations, Switzerland – and my multiple visits to the European Parliament, beginning at about the same time.

Even from those early days, I found poly-nationalism exciting and invigorating; never threatening in the way it seems a large segment of the British population still does. The discovery of new ways was liberating, not intimidating. Ever since I first broke bread round multinational tables, I knew this would be an important aspect of my life. It is one that Britain does not subscribe to even today; even much British “Europeanism” revels in a kind of novel exceptionalism that is anything but the real thing. (If you think Europeanism is all glossy cosmopolitanism, visit La France Profonde, or the Quartieri Spagnoli in Naples…)

My/our life today has little to do with mainstream British culture, and this is never more sharply evident than at Christmas. Being a typical British ‘bloke’ holds nothing for me. We gave up on TV decades ago, we are not interested in the mainstream music scene; we don’t do junk food, recreational shopping (seasonal or otherwise) or binge drinking. We do not dress in the scruffy, dishevelled way that is the national norm. Sport and soap operas leave us cold. But neither do we do the indulgent self-gratification of the “metropolitan elite”. Our lives are genuinely materially and culturally as influenced at least as much by what we know from elsewhere as anything from the U.K., but not for show, just for what we want and need to be.

Ever since those windows opened onto wider European life, I have increasingly doubted that the U.K. was anything like the exceptional place to live that its majority seems to think. For anyone who values civic and cultural life, even the equal dignity of all human lives, there are plenty of other places that achieve for their general citizenry a much better, and more enlightened, quality of life than this snobbery (and inverse-snobbery)-ridden one. For anyone who values cultural richness, much of the everyday experience of this country is a desert of cheapness, gimmick and disposability.

Mainstream British culture is saccharine: pulp fed to keep the masses quiet – and spending. This is a complacent nation, that would rather wallow in cloying sentiment than briskly address the realities of the age in which we live. Yet at the same time, there is little respect for real tradition or rootedness of the sort that still informs identities in many other countries – the majority here seem to prefer Disneyland, where a sanitised plastic version has replaced the real, earthy, ancient roots. This is a country that prefers to live a consumerist fantasy, while letting the many, many issues that are making it increasingly dysfunctional go unaddressed. That, after all, is the root cause of Brexit.

Covid has revealed the extent to which British civil and communal life has been withered by commercialism, commuting and long hours. The pressures have been the same everywhere – but some nations defended their cultural positions more vigorously than others. The British, having almost no other strong sense of who they are or what they stand for, simply caved in.

The effect of decades of post-Thatcherite individualism killed meaningful civil society in Britain, as has the resultant struggle for survival experienced by many as neo-liberalism cut away more and more of the civic and social infrastructure, flogging it to the private sector for a song. I struggle to identify with a country that treats its civic institutions in this way, that sees them as a source of private profit rather than collective pride and utility – and that avoids paying the taxes to sustain them. I experienced it at first hand in the lack of financial or healthcare support in my own moment of need in 2016 – and am seeing it again as it institutionally fails to cater adequately for elderly members of my own extended family in theirs.

These are real, not imagined, fractures of perspective and values over the dignity and experience of life, between the continent and the island; I see how real people fare elsewhere, and I know which I prefer. I’m not naïve enough to ignore the failures of other countries – indeed I am more confident in my views for having seen their grotty bits too – but my repeated and extended impression remains that those with whom we might reasonably compare  have not fallen as far; they still have more balanced lives and higher-minded ideals than most Britons; they have a stronger instinct to protect their social and civic infrastructure from predation and decline.

I know this country well; there is little of it I have never visited – unlike the “patriotic” part of the population that often scarcely seems to know any of it at all. As a geographer, I perhaps have more understanding of these islands’ natural marginality, in a way that the national culture chooses to ignore, let alone properly address.

This land has its natural assets, though that is hardly something its inhabitants can claim credit for – unlike their growing destruction. But from its bombastic and overblown capital, through the faceless “traditional” suburbs, to the desolation and decay of its more distant regions, I find there is little to admire about how the British live, or how they run their country. Its fabled pragmatism is in reality nothing more than an absence of higher ideals or imagination.

Inanity is now this nation’s defining characteristic – as most obviously seen in its inability to cope with the discipline required to deal with Covid. What worse indictment could there be of the nation than its track record on that score?

For me, ‘Europe’ has always been primarily a cultural matter: the embodiment (even if imagined, which in a sense is all culture ever is…) of a set of values that deliver a culturally rich, meaningful, and balanced society and life for as many as possible, that has never really existed in this country in my lifetime. At least, not if you do not belong to its ancient elite, or its new hangers-on, who have milked the country for all they can get.

The politics of Europe were simply the logical extension of a force which I had always hoped would shape this country for the better. I still think it did that – even though the mass of the population seems not to have noticed – and nowhere near as much as it could have, had it wholeheartedly embraced Europeanism as “just another European nation”.

This blog, and the Living Europe Facebook group have been founded on such values and beliefs. The blog title Sprezzatura was deliberately chosen for its connotations of a well-judged, authentic and original “good life” – but taken far beyond its origins in men’s style.

As with feelings about families and friendships, a modern sense of nationality cannot be commanded; thoughtful people see through the artifice which did that in the past. You have to earn loyalty, not demand it. In that respect, the end of 2020 marks the moment when this country decisively turned away from my own values and aspirations, needs and ideals. Why would it expect me to feel otherwise than as described above?

In that sense, I today am cutting any personal ‘interest’ I have in this country; I will do what is required to live here and nothing more – with the single exception of anything that may help to reverse the madness of its current direction. I shall ignore the chime of 11pm this evening; I will continue as before – but any personal ‘investment’ I might give to the place where I reside has now gone.

Despite my provincial English roots, I became a European, and this I shall remain, whatever the new political realities. Unlike the unavoidable practicalities, identity-loyalty cannot be commanded, only earned.

Opinion & Thought

Patience not patients

I recently played my first gig with fiddle as my main instrument.

Ten years ago, I decided I really needed to play one of the core instruments of Irish music (fiddle, flute, pipes). It has been an enjoyable if challenging journey, and there’s still a long way to go. I mention this because, as I expected, it has taken a full decade to achieve that objective: it is a process that cannot be rushed (even though twenty years’ prior playing on other instruments had put me in good stead).

Good things come to those who wait, and enjoying the journey is definitely part of that process. But more generally, patience seems to be in short supply. People have become so used to having their every need met instantly, that the self-discipline needed to wait for something has simply evaporated. The speed of modern technology means that a delay of a few seconds can invoke huge frustration; gone are the days when one had to be patient for the day on which one’s favourite TV programme would be screened on a terrestrial channel. And one can acquire pretty much anything one wants at the click of a mouse, aided by the availability of instant credit rather than the need to save.

I see it in my students too, where one adverse mark can be enough to create major discouragement, and they don’t always seem convinced by my advice to take the long view. A lack of resilience is the result if you can’t cope when things don’t go according to plan. But as I tell them, there are some things in life that you just can’t hurry; development of the intellect is one, and playing a musical instrument is another.

One might argue that there is no virtue waiting, but I’m not so sure. Doing the time is part of the process: it is enriching in itself; learning to cope with the setback and frustrations is a valuable developmental skill. It also means that you develop a much deeper appreciation of something done genuinely well, than when it comes instantly, and you value it more when it finally arrives. Expertise is, almost by definition, something that doesn’t happen quickly. The problem is, without the resilience to accept this situation, the risk of instant discouragement grows to the point where one gives up at the first set-back – and by doing so, perhaps closes the door on a fruitful avenue of development forever.

I recently read a similar comment about the role of patience in the ongoing health crisis. Lockdowns are – supposedly – doing serious damage to people’s mental health. I suspect that a fair amount of the real problem is that people lack the skills to work through something that simply cannot be hurried.

Last summer, it was the inability to defer the gratification of summer holidays for a year that led to super-spreading events, and the rise in infection that we are now dealing with. Likewise, impatience to get the economy running again. In the long run, the effects of that impatience may be worse.

I can see the same thing happening over Christmas. We in the U.K. have spent several week in what seemed in any case to be a very half-hearted lockdown – but it seems as though the widespread refusal to accept that Christmas cannot be the same this year risks blowing any previous progress out of the water. Several leading scientists have said that they think the Christmas relaxation is a bad idea, in which they won’t personally be participating, and I tend to agree with them.

It is undoubtedly true that the Coronavirus emergency has created real hardship – but I am beginning to suspect that the real problem for many is simply an inability to WAIT for anything, even a safe social environment, before indulging.

The communal lack of patience risks creating another surge of patients.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Beware of the sharks.

They say some species of shark can never stop swimming. They require forward movement to force water through their gills and hence breathe. Even if apocryphal, the story has some useful applications.

Around five years ago, our local independent garden centre closed, leaving a large, increasingly derelict space on the edge of our small town, about half a mile from the centre. It was not long before pinstripe-clad fins were spotted in the area.

At about the same time, a group of local residents was coming together to create a Neighbourhood Plan under the then-government’s localism agenda. The aim of these things is to build local control (shark nets?) into the statutory planning procedure.

It was a long and complex job, that took several years to complete, and this week it appears that it has cleared its final hurdle before going out to local referendum. This is quite a coincidence, because it is the very same week when a building company has launched its marketing campaign for the fifty or so Noddy houses that it is currently building on the site of the former garden centre.

Throughout the intervening period, the Neighbourhood Plan team put considerable effort into engaging with first the land agents promoting the site, and then the building company that bought it. Their aspiration was to produce an architecturally innovative, environmentally-sustainable development which would steer the emphasis away from car-reliance and create a model for the area.

I had several meetings with one of the pinstripe sharks as part of this process, and to begin with, the noises were smoothly consensual. But then the site was sold on, and the building company that bought it refused to engage with the local group. The excuses why certain things “couldn’t be done” mounted.  As a result, we have been left with just another cloned housing estate, planned entirely around the car with, apparently, the blessing of the local authority’s planners who still require major consideration for multiple car-use in all new designs.

So much for localism; the Big Fish have been fed again – and will now go off to prey on some other unsuspecting community. It makes the glossy sales blurb for the development all the more infuriating since it trades heavily (and sometimes inaccurately) on the beauty, strong community and local amenities of our town, while at the same time having made no effort whatsoever to preserve or enhance or them, to say the very least.

Businesses are like sharks; it seems they must move ever onwards, otherwise they perish. They have no sense of fair play; once they have eaten the minnows, they move onto other fish. They have no sense of restraint; cash is their oxygen, and they care not how they acquire it, or how much damage they do in the process. Cynicism is just part of the plan; I doubt they appreciate irony, either.

Decades ago, this nation was seduced by the shark-like charms of private business. We had a succession of Prime Ministers who championed it over the allegedly hopeless public sector. We were encouraged to become shareholders as the nation’s assets were sold off.  I remember, even as a teenager, having reservations about this – but I could see that a nation in which the proceeds of such enterprises were returned to the populace through widespread, small dividends might just work, and accountability to such large numbers of shareholders could even be argued to be democracy of a sort.

It didn’t last. The sharks quickly ate all the smaller fish; today the small private shareholder is a rarity. Privatisation has turned out not to be a form of democratisation, but the opposite. Most of the fodder is funnelled towards, and then circulated amongst, the large financial predators that constitute the majority shareholders. It’s that – and the fact the successive governments have done little to restrain their appetites – that causes market cynicism such as that shown by the building company mentioned above.

We have another one circling; at least in this case, it did engage, and has made some nods towards local wishes. But it was still immediately apparent that it would ultimately do largely what it wanted, while perhaps throwing a minnows a sweetener or two. It only shifts it swim-forward focus, we were told, to the extent that the Law requires it to do so. Which is Not Much. Again, the democratic wishes of the local population will be over-ridden by the profit-lust of the corporate sharks.

This pattern repeats itself throughout businesses and across the nation; it is how they survive. But it is an inherently selfish motive, always seeking to tip the scales decisively in its own favour, while never letting the fixed grin shown to customers slip for a moment. Even small businesses do it – they will (nearly) always sell you more than you really want if they think they can get away with it. Caveat Emptor! Beware the teeth!

Covid 19 has stirred the water. The placid shoals of consumers on whom companies feed have largely fled to safer places. Yet “The Economy” has been enough of a consideration to compromise – for some, fatally – the health measures that needed to have been taken much sooner. Those sharks need to keep swimming, come what may.

But where there is no food, the sharks will eventually starve and fade. That is what is happening to many businesses right now. I find it hard to sympathise; during the plentiful years of consumerism, those sharks grew fat predating on the rest of us. They relentlessly championed their right to do so, both politically and through that bewitching consumer grin. They were the real consumers, not us.  Now that times are hard, I see no reason why we should listen to their new tune. If the sharks really want markets to be so Free, then they can’t complain when they make businesses fail, as they are doing in large numbers at present. That’s the Quid pro Quo.

The more adaptable will find new ways of surviving anyway, and those that can’t probably are no longer needed. Not that many don’t have a good amount of body fat to survive on for a while yet.

Others are doing much better from the new habits of the shoals: those who provide entertainment or hobby supplies; many in the shoals have themselves discovered resourcefulness that they never knew they had. All sorts of amazing, innovative and sometimes downright crazy things are becoming popular in the virtual universe. The small fish are coming back into their own.

So let’s play the Free Marketeers at their own game: those who can adapt should survive in this new world where the gratuitous consumption needed to feed their endless appetites is no longer society’s main preoccupation. Those who can’t, we just don’t need any more. No need to shed any more tears than they did as they relieved us of our hard-earned cash often in return for little of much value, while despoiling our communities and environments in the process. Things referred to euphemistically as “externalities”.

There is, however, one problem: those businesses also employ the majority of the shoals of worker-consumers. The lost companies do also represent lost livelihoods and careers, often shed in the most cursory of ways – and potentially much hardship. Unemployment is rising – but many are also finding new directions that they would never have expected only a year ago. We need to nourish these new enterprises – the online artists and musicians, the writers, comics and posters of amusing memes, the small online craft community, the 3D printers and the hobby-orientated suppliers. We need to find a way of remunerating them for their new and creative communal activities – and encourage many more to join them.

The point of an economy is to serve people’s needs, not the other way round. Those needs are now different.

So forget the whinges of the airlines – what use are bulk-fliers when few people need or want to fly? What use the huge stores that have struggled to maintain their supply chains when we most needed them? Let them wither; if demand returns in the future, rest assured, someone will spot a business opportunity and things will re-start. We just need to find a cost-effective way of cold-storing the assets in the meantime, if we can. Those bits of the old economy that are still needed will be re-born in a way dead people can’t be.

Free Markets are an ideological luxury: created not, as claimed, to benefit the many, but to allow a few to grow very rich minimally servicing them. If that were not so, they would engage in fewer anti-competitive practices where they feel they can get away with it. That is the nature of business: it is self-interested – and we are now living in a less self-interested age.

The problem is the incomes of those who lose their jobs. Yet we already have something of an answer: despite years of denial, it turns out that the government can, when the need arises, conjure almost limitless amounts of money out of thin air. It is only a construct after all – and one whose day is past. The need for income to support people in living reasonable lives is vastly out of kilter with the ability of any economy to generate and distribute the cash to provide it. That is why so many are in permanent deficit. And unrestrained markets actively funnel it in the wrong direction.

It has always struck me that expecting so many people to depend on the relentless swimming of what is in effect a glorified, unequal bartering system for their survival in the modern age is both primitive and insecure, not to mention environmentally unsustainable. Similar could be said for universal public services, whose quasi-commercial models are now also facing economic and behavioural contradictions that might not have existed under alternative models. Once again, the State has stepped in, because you simply cannot allow hospitals, schools and public transport not to operate just because they have become commercially unviable. There is a lesson there.

I don’t claim to have “The Answer” – but somehow, we need to decouple the supply of income to those who need it, from the shark-like behaviour of their (former) employers, swimming ever forward, irrespective of the damage they do with their huge income disparities, poor products, and social and environmental damage. There is supposedly a matter of balancing the books – but maybe that is a concept whose time has finally passed too? When companies are able, through technology, to make the mega-profits that many do, perhaps national debt is less of a problem than it might seem. We simply need to divert those flows to where they should arguably have been going all along. Perhaps the time of the Universal Basic Income has also come.

This not a call for a command-style economy, whose shortcomings are all too real (though the Chinese have perhaps shown to be less so than western mythology would believe). But traumatic events such as pandemics have prompted fundamental change in the past, and there is no reason why they should not do so again. Perhaps we simply need to accept that the sharks’ natural environment is gone forever – and put something more equitable in its place.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A parcel of rogues

English gold has been our bane:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

I wonder how history will judge the current time.

Maybe the song whose title has been circulating in my head will have something to do with it.

I know it a little from The Dubliners, and had always assumed that it was Irish, but a closer look shows that it is Scottish, attributed to Burns. The song excoriates those who signed the Act of Union in 1707, and the loss of Scottish independence that followed it. Plus ça change.

The Brexit experience seems to have sparked a bout of national soul-searching that shows little sign of abating; in effect, the arrival of Covid has done little more than divert the main channel of its expression, and perhaps blur the boundaries somewhat.

Quite where this will lead is anyone’s guess. No matter what the outcome of the UK-EU negotiations, a cultural chasm has been opened and it shows no sign of closing again. While those who have always had an outward-looking view seem to have doubled down on their Europeanism, the debate is not restricted to them. I think this is a good thing: as the Dunning-Kruger Effect shows, the worst thing about ignorance is your ignorance of your own. There’s only one way to change that.

The D-K Effect has a geographical expression too: people who are raised in insular places risk not only remaining insular, but also unaware of how insular they are. They tend to do it by over-estimating their own centrality and importance. That, to my mind, sums up the story of this nation, probably ever since sea levels rose 10,000 years ago.

The causes of Brexit go far deeper than the matters of the past decade and lie in the simple geographical fact the Britain is not part of a continent. How little this past-clinging nation has really changed was shown in the belief of a fair proportion of its population in its right and ability to ignore the rest of the world – except to the extent that it can contribute to further reinforcement of its own self-delusions. Such conservatism is another expression of insularity – in our case, turbo-charged by certain events in our past two centuries.

A feature of isolated groups around the world is that they tend to be inward-looking and self-referential. When the outside world does intrude, the reaction is typically one of suspicion, hostility, or disdain. It’s no different from an English speaker walking into a Welsh-language pub. A bombastic, passive-aggressive culture is often the result: a superiority-inferiority complex that wallows in its own failings, while simultaneously twisting them into virtues and thereby itself back into the Promised Land that it believed all along. We in all these islands excel at that. That, I think, is where Britain’s dark humour comes from: the hard-bitten cynicism of a place that deep down knows its reality is not a patch on its self-image.

Much of this nation’s historic relationship with the wider world can be easily read through this prism. The love-hate relationship with its neighbours that stretches back centuries may be more complex than popular opinion believes – but it is still an expression of a relationship that was founded on limited knowledge, just as it is now. People with literally and figuratively limited horizons simply find it more difficult to know how life might be different elsewhere. They have more difficulty just going to see what happens elsewhere – and Elsewhere finds it more difficult to bring itself to them. It was not unsurprising, when that outside world did intrude – during the Nineteenth Century when internationalism took root, the World Wars, and again with EU membership and its consequent migrations – that the national reaction would be inconsistent, unstable and extreme. Insularity and reactionary conservatism go together. When you are unused to dealing with people from Elsewhere you are not equipped to do so, and the line of least resistance is to dismiss them in one way or another.

And then we come to the Insularity Squared of Dunning-Kruger: worst of all, the insular nation was not able to see that the insularity was by definition its own, not the rest of the world’s. The 1950s headline Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off may be apocryphal, but it still betrays the traditional view of an insular nation. I suspect many in the UK remain in ignorance of the extent to which life elsewhere has become internationalised and globalised. International families and nation-hopping careers are no longer unusual. We, meanwhile, still largely see Abroad just as a place to holiday with better weather.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that this problematic worldview has been embedded in our national mindset to a depth that even those who consider themselves liberal might be duped by. I remember my own parents – who were hardly apologists for the British Establishment – expressing attitudes towards “continentals” and their countries that appear mildly shocking now. It was not meant to be incendiary; that was simply how the British views of the continent were, even in the 1970s, when memories of the War were fresher. But despite the emergence of an internationalised so-called “elite” in the country, I think far less has changed than such people are inclined to believe.

In my own case, it was only the opportunity to experience other European countries ‘differently’ that came from having useful language skills and friends who had moved abroad, that changed this beginning in the late 1980s – but even then I found it a long and difficult struggle to stop being intimidated by those places and their ways, even as I enjoyed discovering them. Had this chance not arisen, I suspect I would have continued with my childhood perspectives, as others in my family have done.

Whatever one’s conclusions, I think it is good that questions are at last being asked. If nothing else, Covid has made it harder to avoid comparisons between the nations of Europe and indeed elsewhere – just at the time when many Britons might have wanted to be doing just that. The raw statistics have made it harder than ever to argue that national differences are not significant, or to persist in the belief of the UK’s innate superiority: the same superiority that informed Boris Johnson’s early claim that the nation had a “world-class” response at the ready, and would survive virtually unscathed, as it always supposedly did.

World Class – the perpetual refrain of a nation that is now very often anything but; those that are, don’t need to keep reminding themselves. A natural disaster such as a virus can demolish the vanities of national exceptionalism like little else can.

My own objections to Brexit were born from a genuine belief in the commonality of people, most immediately within a shared Europe, where history and geography have always made it inevitable that we need to rub along somehow. But it was also born from my growing realisation of just how backward and inward looking this country still was, and a patriotic desire that Europeanism might change that. But for years, my views met most commonly with blankness, as though people simply didn’t know what I was going on about. The idea that Britain might no longer actually be Top Dog simply did not compute for those whose entire lives were still based around the contrary assumption.

Or maybe they just didn’t want to think about it. It is a view that many Brexiters still seem to struggle with, despite the tribulations of the last nine months.

If anything, my view has shifted more towards resignation. The one thing that might have made me accept Brexit would have been concrete evidence that this country is indeed building such a strong and enlightened future for itself that membership of the EU would clearly have been a handicap. That would not be impossible: see Switzerland. But I just can’t see it here. The hype is nothing more than that; the repressive undercurrents run just too deep to see, let alone change.

First amongst them is the received wisdom that society is inevitably hierarchical. I have gradually come to see that this assumption is, if not absent, then significantly weaker on the continent wherever stronger social democracy prevails. In fact, I suspect that the UK is one of the last developed nations to have such an entrenched, subconscious and hypercompetitive preoccupation with Status and Pecking-Order as it still does; many others now define themselves absolutely to the contrary.

It is so entrenched that even now most don’t see it; but it is socially destructive all the same. It is there in the promotion of high-end goods on their “exclusivity” and the emphasis on the status that wealth supposedly brings. And in the notion that getting ‘one up’ is both acceptable and desirable. You don’t need to worry so much about social mobility if society is reasonably equal in the first place.

I see it on my regular cycle rides into the Essex countryside, which have revealed any number of luxury modernised farmhouses and former barns tucked away in the glacial folds, where the Very Wealthy are buying themselves seclusion, away from the towns and villages that are fighting a losing battle against swamping by the future-slums of the volume Noddy-house builders. I wonder at the lives lived in such places: a mere 50 miles from London, perhaps simply second homes, the children neatly tucked away in private schools. No need to interact with the plebs of Regular Britain at all.

But it’s only what the higher orders have done in this country for centuries. In a way, I almost don’t blame them – for Regular British life is a pretty crass affair, not something to aspire to. “Civilising” forces – such as a respect for learning, and access to higher culture, are largely absent from mainstream British life, drowned out by the lowbrow, the cheap and the blatantly commercial to an extent that I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere.

Historically, this country produced few cultural giants of the stature of the French painters, Italian sculptors, or German composers; only in literature do we come close. We have never valued abstraction or philosophical thought – the basis of idealism for a higher life. (Such as we produced was, ironically, mostly Scottish). We hark back to the Victorians – yet much of their legacy, while grand, is largely derivative and backward looking, a manifestation in stone of that same social authoritarianism that has kept so much of the nation down. It took French abstraction and German/Scandinavian modernism to produce genuinely new templates for the present age – and once again, Britain struggled to cope with change. Its elites made sure of that.

It can be argued that there has been a renaissance in Art, Food, Architecture and Fashion in the past few decades, but it has largely (once again) been cornered by the new-generation elite – educated and affluent; just a new way of demarcating social status rather than anything genuinely democratising. There are precious few signs of its widely enriching the towns and lives of provincial Britain, let alone the poorer parts. Except where the new rich in-comers are pricing many locals out of their own homes. It became symbolic of a way of life that is alien to the majority of British people.

Why wouldn’t those of more discriminating tastes want to distance themselves from such a morass? There seems little alternative – but this is part of the problem, not the solution. By monopolising the best, all you do is coarsen the rest. I see less to flee from in more equal countries.

You only need look at the political climate, or the responses to Covid to see that different values and perspectives are at work in different places. In this country’s case, it is the desire of those at the top of that still-enduring hierarchy to wash their hands of the rest (or at least, patronise them) – as their breeding suggests they are entitled to do – that actually perpetuates the wider crassness. It is by democratising the nation’s assets that people can be levelled up – to use the Prime Minister’s favourite phrase. And yet that is the last thing instinct makes him and his kind able to understand, let along implement. They just can’t get over their traditional sense of entitlement – and over generations, institutionalised deference has polluted the entire nation’s view of itself.

Brexit and Covid are pushing this nation further into a mire of its own making. We still seem unable to see that the only workable ways forward are communal and egalitarian: new models, not clinging to the old. Shameless individualism can be exploited by the virus as well as the political system. We still don’t ‘get’ that the underlying problem is the way this country is fundamentally configured.

Its solutions to both are largely predicated on the values and worldviews of its past; just as was the way it has functioned for decades. It is there in the way its adversarial political system dismisses any other than a single dominant world-view; in the condescension of its leaders, and their failure to cope with the consensual pluralism of the EU27, which even now is more concerned with finding an accommodation than rattling sabres. Its only answers are “more of the same” – the criticism I first made of this country’s inability to become truly forward- and outward-looking several decades ago.

Alternative models that have successfully addressed at least some of these issues have been available just a few tens of miles offshore for the past fifty years. But we have only ever been intent on seeing the wideness of the Channel, not the opposite. And so intent were – and are – we in our belief that there is no other way, even an ocean-crossing virus has yet to make us think again.

It’s easy to blame the nation’s current predicament on this or that sub-group. But in truth it is the whole culture – all of us – that is the problem. From the coarsened urban masses, through the newly-affluent in their barns, to the old elites (whose influence is still stronger than many realise – only less visible) – to our new generation of bombastic, wealth-obsessed ‘leaders’ with their empty nationalism. The Scots (who once made common cause with the French) might sense a particular irony – and the continentals themselves I suspect now see it in a clearer way that we still can’t, now that we have shattered the stereotypes.

In reality, we’re all part of it: such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Crocodile tears

Chester Barrie was a British men’s tailoring company founded in 1935. It produced semi-bespoke clothing with a shop on Savile Row. I first encountered the brand via its concession in Manchester’s House of Fraser in 2014. While I’m not keen on starchy, traditional British menswear, I was pleased to see that the brand was innovative, clearly taking some of its lead from Italy and turning out several seasons of nicely styled, modern clothes. At last, I felt, here is a company that is doing something other than rest on its traditional laurels, which might even hold a light to what is still done so well in Italy. It did well enough to become official dresser to, for example, Leicester Tigers rugby team.

CB’s usual offerings were well out of my price range – but I was delighted when it opened an outlet shop a mere handful of miles from my home a year or two later. Given the precipice off which my income fell in 2016, that shop has done a sterling job of keeping me dressed for minimal outlay – and deflected the need to fall back on the dullness of the usual High Street stores, whose men’s department heave with piles of over-priced, low quality cloned jeans, chinos and trainers.

And then it disappeared. It turns out that CB was bought and sold several times, before being acquired by the Japanese Itochu Corporation in 2017. In early 2020, the decision was made to close the brand, including its concessions, outlet shops, and the Savile Row flagship store. A piece of recent British tailoring history summarily executed, to suit the accounting bottom line of a distant corporation. I struggle to imagine this happening in Italy, where I suspect veneration of such a company’s heritage would overridden short term profitability issues. It would probably still be family-owned in the first place.

This has become the story of much of the British economy, particularly that of the ‘High Street’. For decades, a process has been underway whereby profitable smaller companies were absorbed by larger ones, until huge corporations came to own vast swathes of retail and other activity. Delve into the ownership of almost any well-known British brand, and you are likely to find that it ultimately funnels money towards one or other of the large corporations, most insidiously of all, Venture Capital companies and hedge funds, whose speciality is the aggressive acquisition of companies which are often asset stripped and disposed of, making a (very) few – and mostly anonymous – individuals very rich in the process.

Another classic example was Costa Coffee, which began as a small concern in London in 1971, before being bought out by Whitbread in 1995, and being being sold again in 2019 to the Coca Cola Corporation for £3.9 billion. In the meantime, its character has changed out of all recognition, from the small Italian-style coffee bar I first visited at Liverpool St station in the late 1980s, to just another themed chain, albeit one whose coffee still isn’t bad.

We can add other venerables to the list – such as Pizza Express, Carluccio’s – not to mention the other sectors that such corporations now operate in, perhaps most controversially private care home provision.

I suppose one could argue that this is just the way in which advanced economies are developing. It is clearly not just a British phenomenon – and I might be just about willing to accept that this happens, were it not for the effects on the companies – and the rest of us – in the meantime.

Those large corporations do not buy smaller outfits out of sentiment: their one and only concern is maximising their profit, often only in the short term. We tend to see a change of direction – almost always towards the dumbed-down mass market, because that is where maximum revenue lies. Products are homogenised and mass-production processes ramped up – nearly always at the expense of distinctiveness and quality – while at the same time, tried and tested favourites are jettisoned in favour of trendy gimmicks. There is no quality, and there is no continuity.

And where this is not possible, as in the case of Chester Barrie, it seems that the bones are picked clean, and the company jettisoned – with no concern for history, employees or long-standing customers – let alone the loss of diversity in the market place.

In the process, our towns and cities have become standardised clones, their streets filled with the same old chains pumping out retail therapy, but whose real purpose is to channel income from the very many, towards the very few who stand at the top of such corporations. Let’s not pretend that the employees of such chains benefit very greatly from their presence – they are often unskilled and low-paid – and eminently disposable, unlike those who worked in more specialist trades.

As I said, this is certainly not just a British phenomenon – but it still seems that the impact of the trend varies from place to place. There seem to be, for example, far fewer national or international chains on the streets of Italy or France – even, I think, Germany. Clothing retail in particular seems still in the hands of many small boutiques, and there are many individual restaurants, even though the small eateries of France are known to be under threat.

There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth in recent months, at the impact of CV19 on towns’ economies. Having ventured into my nearest town for the first time in months a week or so ago, I did not notice much change – but it is possible that the worst is still to come. I even read someone recently, bewailing the loss of the “traditional British chain store”. What was very noticeable, however, from the branding on the Covid health notices, was just how much of the town centre is now privately owned.

For several decades, these giants have bled local businesses dry, and turned our towns from civic centres into semi-privatised conveyor belts for shovelling cash from the not-very-well-off many, to the very-well-off few. They have taken aggressive advantage of a neo-liberal economic climate, whereby the government of the country failed to intervene in the market despite the inequalities that were being created. So far as I am concerned, they should not squeal when liberal free market conditions, whether Covid-related or otherwise, turn against them. What we do need, however, is protection from the adverse consequences of their behaviour, which our government mostly declines to provide.

I am of course concerned for those whose jobs will be just more collateral damage as the corporations pull in their belts – and there is clearly a job to be done to figure out how to fill what may end up as  a vast over-provision of urban retail space. But I am much more concerned about how the small and local businesses are faring – those who offer personal service, often distinctive and better-quality products, and earnings that flow back into local economies rather than distant HQs.

So forgive me if I fail to pass anything more than crocodile tears for the passing of these ‘household names’, the majority of which have not, and do not, serve us anywhere near as well as they claim, but which have been a major cause of damage to both local distinctiveness and real choice for consumers. Companies like Chester Barrie are a real loss, though – but largely avoidable. In the meantime, internet shopping provides an escape from the tyranny of the high street giants, and for this reason I use it shamelessly, to support small, distinctive and independent retailers wherever they may be. We can do better in future.

Opinion & Thought

Prizes for all?

exam

The fuss over this year’s exam results was probably inevitable. I suspect that those with political axes to grind spotted a sitting target a long time ago, and they were not about to give up the opportunity to horsewhip the government over it lightly.

I have no desire whatsoever to provide excuses for the shower that currently passes for the British government – but their biggest error in this case is probably yet to come – by performing a U-turn on the grades just issued.

There was never going to be an easy way of accurately replicating the outcomes of the exam hall. It seems to me that using an algorithm that considered:

• a school’s past performance profile
• students’ previous work
• as well as their teachers’ predictions

was about as good a mix as was likely to be possible. The fact that it has not delivered prizes for all should be seen as a strength not a weakness – because the normal exam system does not do that either. That is not intended to suggest that it was perfect, nor that there are no errors.

Many of those shouting loudest at the moment seem to be claiming that teacher predictions should have been pretty much the sole determinant of outcomes. Yet these are notoriously unreliable, as has been shown over many years. Mine often were. It may be true that teachers know their students’ potential better than anyone else – but that has never been the only factor affecting exam outcomes, and so if the aim is consistency with past years, it should not be the case now either. Potential is prone to wishful thinking.

It is not as though teachers or schools these days have no vested interest in talking-up their students’ exam results – both individual and institutional reputations rest on them. (Indeed, it was my insistence on reporting the truth about an apparently under-achieving class rather than the unsubstantiated grades that my superiors wanted to see, that contributed to my premature exit from the profession some years ago). I know enough about pressures on teachers elsewhere for this not just to be an exception; therefore, I am wary about heavy reliance on teacher predictions, and I think the exam boards were wise to be so too. The pressures to talk grades up are just too great.

But there are bigger issues here.

There is an enduring belief in large parts of the teaching profession that the testing system should deliver ‘prizes for all’ – without any apparent recognition that doing so would simply devalue them, as all forms of inflation tend to do. Focusing on positive achievement is all very laudable – but success is meaningless without the possibility of failure.

That is part of life’s lesson that education really needs to deliver. Talk about what our “young people deserve” is often based very little on reasoning about what that really means (especially for people who have not lived long enough to “deserve” much at all) – and much more on indulgent wishful thinking by adults whose own supposed success depends vicariously upon it. Being charitable, people often arrive at this world-view from a genuine desire to rectify the legacy of social disadvantage – but dispensing extra-cheap prizes for all is not the way to do it.

Young people “deserve” to learn that we do not always win in life – and that they cannot expect all of life’s goodies to drop into their laps just for breathing fresh air. That, I suspect, is by far a more widespread – and more insidious – delusion than the opposite.

I should qualify that by saying that I do support trying to find the best in all people – but that is not the same as giving them all high academic qualifications. The fact that the system we have largely focuses on this at the expense of all else, is the problem here. But trying to use the exam system (and indeed education as a whole) primarily as a form of social engineering has always seemed to me a Pandora’s Box of the worst kind. Not least, it has led to the widespread conflation of “education” with the process and outcomes of prepping children to jump though a certain sort of performance hoop; their chances of success at that is what those having hysterics right now are really worried about, not the wider educational impact.

The only way to escape this minefield is to keep the examining system rigorously independent: assess all purely on their academic potential if you will, and do not be swayed by any other considerations. But also providing much better routes for the non-academic to excel in other fields.

The biggest problem of all, however, is the own goal that we will score by the way this issue is repeatedly covered in society more widely. The cries of indignation are also just another expression of the entitlement complex that causes people not to wear masks or socially distance if they think they don’t want to, those who habitually claim they have been hard done-by. The same complex that cries “it’s not fair” and stamps its foot every time it doesn’t get what it (thinks it) wants.

I am heartily sick of hearing that the exam issue – and indeed Covid 19 – has “destroyed” young people’s lives. There are certain educational problems that it has created, most importantly for those who were at the critical stage of basic skills such as literacy, for whose early-years development time does not wait. Likewise, the logistical problems for those about to enter a new phase of education are real – but they are just that – logistical, not intellectual. For almost everyone else, this has been a brief disruption that amounts to no more than a few percent of even young lives.

The most hysterical shouting has been about “wrecking young people’s mental health”. This from a society that, until it became a buzz-topic, cared almost not at all about that issue; this from a system that as I have seen at first hand, does plenty itself to damage young people’s mental health, through the pressure that comes from the anxiety-inducing hype that I mentioned earlier. I have seen far too many young people whose pleasure in learning was destroyed by the endless targets and pressure to “perform”; the latest is my talented niece. I have seen even high achievers rendered nervous wrecks by the stakes the felt they were playing for – all of which is the product of the system that our societal attitudes – not its young people, nor the ‘crisis’ – have created.

The peak of this stupidity is the hysteria with which the adult world – particularly the media, but many others too (including teachers) – rushes around discussing the matter. If there is one thing pretty much guaranteed to give young people anxiety, it is adults telling them just how “damaged” they now are, and just how “ruined” their lives will now be as a result of six months’ disruption.

If there is one thing that young people do not “deserve”, it is being the unwitting grist in the mill of the endlessly churning political-media-educational machine or becoming the focus of indulgent adult insecurities. It is why I instinctively felt that for many, a break from it might be at least as beneficial to their well-being as harmful. And we risk adding to the complex by insisting that they now need “intensive care” catch-up courses for all of that damage that must have been done.

I am certainly not advocating neglect of genuine mental health problems: I know more than well enough from personal experience just how destructive they can be. But I also know that a serious risk in mental illness is the power of auto-suggestion – of talking oneself unnecessarily into a damaged mindset, thereby creating problems where none might otherwise have existed.

And at the root of all of this is – yet again – the commoditised, zero-sum view of education that now rules this country. It just isn’t like that: I have seen plenty of young people who have made very good lives for themselves despite not having been academically successful, and I have seen plenty who have made little of having some of the best educational opportunities of all.

In 1982, I got on my bike and rode to school to collect my ‘A’ level results. I felt a mild pleasure when finding out that they were better than I had feared. Both the anticipation and the event had a small impact on what would now be called my ‘mental health’ – but it did not damage me for life. And the one thing that was completely absent was the societal hype about the whole thing. It is still like that in at least some other European countries, where education is still seen more holistically – and where they seem to be treating the same current problem much more calmly.

Yes, this year has been one like no other when it comes to the exam season. Those who never sat their exams are entitled to be feeling somewhat cheated by the lost opportunity to show their worth. But they would be feeling less not more cheated, were the whole of their educational experience not focussed to the point of obsession on what happens in the exam hall.

For most, there will be other exam seasons during their careers, and for those at the upper end – doing Finals – these exams mostly took place anyway. For others currently sitting on critical performance thresholds, it would seem reasonable to implement an enhanced appeals procedure – though that should still not mean caving in to “prizes for all”.

The biggest disservice we can do to young people at present is to hype the supposed “damage” that has been done, and to play down the benefits from wider activities of which plenty have availed themselves, let alone the benefits of a break from the grind of the formal educational conveyor belt. If we lead them to believe they are irreparably harmed, then they are likely to believe it; they will feel “aggrieved” if we tell them they should be.

At very least, any harm should be considered against the benefits for plenty from wider educational activities, more time spent with parents and families, the enhanced sense of community that has resulted, and simply a break from the unremitting conveyor belt that is the modern educational experience.

But that is not something about which many claiming to be standing up for the pupils – while hastening to make all the political or professional capital they can from the situation – will be probably be too concerned.

(This post also appears on my professional blog).

Opinion & Thought

It’s your civic duty…

shopping

A few days ago, I received a circular from one of a small but growing band of companies taking a certain approach:

“We see from our records that you haven’t made a purchase from us for some time. Here is a voucher for 10% reduction”.

With a deadline of about two weeks.

I suppose this is a natural consequence of a data-rich world where companies can (relatively) effortlessly track our behaviour. I’m not very keen on it, though I can see that it could have benefits to the customer too.

What really jars is the implication that it is somehow an expectation that I will regularly spend money with a business whether I really need to or not. To me, it speaks loudly about what buying and selling is supposed to be for. Certainly, companies need sales to survive – but the implication almost seems to be that I am somehow failing in my civic duty if I fail regularly to provide chunks of my relatively small income to the shareholders of large businesses.

It’s another example of how I increasingly feel like an alien in my own country; I have no information whether companies elsewhere behave in the same way. It seems likely that this is not only a British matter, though there is always a cultural filter, and there is no reason either to assume that companies behave the same everywhere. Not all nations are equally brash and gung-ho in their attitude to consumerism. This does, however, feel like a very particular example of the extent to which British society is now controlled by and for commerce.

There have been other recent examples that reinforce this: the government’s recent “Welcome back” campaign to get people back into shops and restaurants ran under the caption “Welcome back to the shops you love” – with a relatively small reminder about safe behaviour as part of it.

The implication is, again, that shopping is not a practical matter but is (as a number of surveys have shown) the nation’s favourite leisure activity. It is no longer a means of acquiring what we need, but an engine of the economy, part of what we exist for. That may also explain a well-intentioned question posted a few weeks ago by a social media contact: “Do we live in a Society or an Economy?” It is a question to which I suspect many would find the answer less obvious than it seems to me. It may also explain why some people are prepared to risk public health for the economy.

There are very few shops I “love” – and those that I do, more because they are cultural institutions than anything economic. They include a delicatessen in Edinburgh and a model shop in Chelmsford. The former because it is a superbly well-stocked and atmospheric national institution, and the latter for old time’s sake, having been one of the original customers over thirty years ago, where I can always have a chat and am generally treated very well.

I can find very little to ‘love’ about the average chain store (or cafe etc), most of which peddle identikit stuff in identikit surroundings the length and breadth of the nation, whose staff know little and care less about what they are selling so long as they hit their targets. I recently saw such shops described as “the traditional British chain store” – as though the dominance of our high streets by huge, anonymous conglomerates is not a relatively recent phenomenon, and indeed something to be loved. It certainly seemed to be such shops that the government was referring to.

As with everything, Covid has thrown a different light. The “rediscovery” of local shops is apparently a resultant phenomenon – though not to those of us who never stopped valuing individual, local shops in the first place. But my incredulity was capped by an article in The Guardian about How to Stop Buying Cheap Clothes – with the admission that “we all” have wardrobes full of such items that are never worn.

Some of us don’t.

New clothes can be a great pleasure – but not because of the quantity in which they are bought; that tends to be highly ephemeral. I am prepared to spend a fair amount on items of clothing, though I like a genuine bargain as much as the next person. However, cheap rags produced in sweat shops are not a bargain. The article’s suggested remedy – try to wear an item thirty times before discarding it – was where the incredulity came. I have items in my wardrobe that are still good after perhaps hundreds of wearings, over many years. What’s more, I still like them very much, as with many other things I have spent good money on over the years.

That is what comes from the careful purchase of well-made items – and from not being a slave to ephemeral trends, whose only purpose is to keep people performing their civic duty of parting with yet more cash. Neither is it a matter of wealth: while there is an issue of initial outlay, the one or two items I buy in the average year certainly cost less in total than the dozens of cheap items that people apparently struggle to wear a handful of times. And they certainly last a lot longer.

And the same goes for all other aspects of consumption: it is a necessary action in order to equip ourselves with what we need – and given that, we might as well make it pleasurable. Done carefully, the acquisition of any new possession can be a moment of some significance. But the mindless mass-consumption of recreational shopping is not, in my opinion, a meaningful action – and that is shown by the rapid fading of any satisfaction, which in turn drives the need for a new ‘hit’.  Nor is it a wise or sustainable basis for running a national economy, particularly one that is a large net importer and has just ditched its major trading partners. If nothing else, it runs directly contrary to our environmental obligations and needs.

It certainly does not equate with the disingenuous implication that I somehow have a duty to keep spending with certain companies, whether I really need their services at a given moment or not. In fact, it could be seen as rather insulting to the “valued customers” to imply that they need reminders of how to behave. If the products and service are good, customer loyalty normally follows. At least if the customers are using their brains.

On further reflection, however, perhaps we could employ the same harrying data-techniques for rather more useful purposes: maybe we should start sending people reminders that they haven’t met their monthly recycling targets, been considerate enough to their neighbours, given enough to charity or looked after their children or elderly parents properly. Maybe they haven’t exercised or eaten well enough in the past month.

Strangely, successive governments have seemed much more reticent about getting equally heavy with such messaging, let alone enforcing pandemic restrictions – yet that is arguably where real civic duty lies; I wonder how it would go down.

Opinion & Thought

Charming

Morges 5

I once had a colleague who was able to bring the most feral of pupils instantly into line, without so much as a raised eyebrow. No one knew how he did it. It was generally agreed on the staff that Mr J- had something – but no one could say what. In many ways he appeared just an ordinary type, quietly spoken, though he did have piercing blue eyes. I watched him with pupils on many occasions, and I still could not figure out how he brought instant docility over every single one. He never raised his voice; he was always unflappably calm, yet alongside the laid-back approach, there was a certain intensity. He certainly had no obvious ‘trick’ or ‘side’ to him – and yet it seemed to work every time. The staff joke was that he was probably unspeakably threatening when no one else was watching; we couldn’t think of anything else that enabled him to have the effect he did.
It seemed that the pupils noticed too – the matter arose from time to time – and it was generally accepted that you didn’t mess Mr J. around, though again no one knew quite why.

When questioned, he gave nothing away. Talking to Mr J- was a somewhat hypnotic experience, but while he didn’t deny the situation, it was never entirely clear whether he realised or understood it fully himself. Maybe that slight air of mystery was part of the secret – but perhaps in reality he was as puzzled as the rest. There was somehow something about this apparently ordinary guy that I can only call Charisma.

I can only think of maybe two or three people whom I have known who had it. One was a former university friend, in whose company life somehow took on an extra shine. In some ways he was not even a particularly nice person, certainly something of an egotist. And yet it worked perfectly. It helped when he landed a plum job in Lausanne, which enabled him to have a lifestyle that he felt appropriate – and yet he somehow managed to work the same trick on the year we shared together in a student digs in a rather mundane British Midlands city. No matter how ordinary the day, somehow it gained extra vitality when J- was around. We both had temporary work after university – but while I was working as a hospital porter, J- somehow landed a job in one of the city’s smarter jewellers…

J- could on occasions be infuriating, and one was often left trailing in his wake, and yet my wife noticed the same thing when they met, as it seems did the many women he captivated, even though he didn’t always treat them well. The last time I heard, he was on his third wife.

At university J- had not been popular, indeed something of a figure for mockery – but I suspect that even some of that was jealousy. He had what I considered a good sense of style; he was his own man – and he carried it off beautifully. He tended towards classic style, had a great sense of propriety, and eschewed the froth of popular fads; yet he was resolutely modern. Indeed, charismatics somehow have a golden touch: like me, J- was also a railway enthusiast – yet there was never a hint of the usual stereotype to be seen. Once again, he set his own terms. I suspect that it was this sense of self-belief, which seemed to be something of a family trait, that was part of the secret: living life on one’s own terms – but still doing it well.

J- and I have not spoken for many years, yet he somehow remains a significant influence on how I live. But once again, J- himself rarely showed much self-awareness of what he had, or how it worked.

Today, I struggle to think of anyone I know who is in that league. That’s no offence to the many good people I know – and in any case I would not want to single out individuals – because I suspect that most of us will only ever encounter a few such individuals in their lifetime; the rest of us are left to trail in their wake. Sometimes it only takes a fleeting instant to identify charisma: I was once briefly in the same room as Nelson Mandela – and was once again left with a strong impression of someone who had some kind of rare personal magnetism. Sadly one is far more often left with an impression of the lack of it, even amongst those in society whose positions might require otherwise: Charisma (and the lack of it) is no respecter of rank.

I’m aware that I have only described charismatic males – which is not to imply that there have been no similar females – just that it is in some ways all the harder quality for a heterosexual to discuss in the opposite sex, thanks to all the other issues that can compound the matter! But the allure of charisma is something entirely different from sexual attraction.

More recently, I have been pondering whether it is only people who have charisma, or whether certain places are somehow charmed too. It is something that seems to be in many peoples’ minds at present, in the case of the British most notably with respect to various bits of the continent that we cannot easily visit at present. Interestingly – sadly – there seems to be much less of the same feeling for our own country.

In my own experience, the best example is indeed the Swiss Riviera – the side of Lake Geneva, where J- lived. Even when I go there these days, it somehow strikes me as being in possession of something that makes you regret that you have to live anywhere else. It is a kind of self-possession, but clearly not the product of a single masterplan, more the happy product of natural blessing and its having capitalised on that. Certainly not anything that in any way rubs you up the wrong way or makes you feel excluded. Despite its wealth and the many celebrities who live there, there are plenty of ordinary folk who were just blessed with having been born on the Lake’s shores. Strangely, the French shore of the Lake just doesn’t have it. Wistfully glancing through the websites of hotels in Morges, my favourite small town on The Lake the other day, I was struck by the same sense of something, that one just doesn’t get looking at hotels in Manchester – or even (perhaps a better parallel) somewhere like Bournemouth or Torquay.

Certain places in Italy seem to have ‘it’ too. Not necessarily the obvious ones, but often less-known places. Bologna is one example – but so is the smaller town of Cremona, and the even smaller one of Barga. It would be tempting to dismiss this as ‘just Italy’ – but I have equally seen plenty of places in that country that don’t have it, too. And it is also to be found, albeit perhaps less frequently, in some of the less obvious candidate countries. It seems to be a quality that transcends individual cultures.

Then there are the individual premises that just seem to ‘work’ – individual shops, cafes and the like that somehow have hit a sweet-spot where others didn’t. Sometimes they depend on capturing the zeitgeist, but the best become lasting institutions.

Oddly, it is sometimes possible to identify specific “ingredients” that sweep one up: and yet somehow one still fails to capture the sum of the parts and attempting to recreate (dare I say “copy”) it is doomed to failure. When it comes to places, lakesides seem to be one of the key ingredients of a charismatic place: the same goes for those in Italy and elsewhere. Even the few big lakes in the UK make a stab at it, though they mostly fail: too self-conscious again, to do it properly.

I’m not sure what the rest of us can do about it. There must be something about those places and people that make them what they are. And yet I wonder whether it is even any more than chance. I guess the whole nature of Sprezzatura is that sense of effortless style that can somehow put an everyday encounter onto another plane – and yet I wonder whether it is actually any more than a happy accident. By no means all of those who attempt Sprezzatura pull it off; in fact perhaps only a few do. In recent years, the rise of Pitti Uomo Peacocks has shown that Sprezzatura overdone rapidly just degenerates into vanity, and loses its appeal. Maybe the whole thing about charisma is that it is unconscious. As soon as you try to have it, or become aware that others think you do, then you instantly lose it. Because the instant killer for charisma is trying too hard.

I think this is where Britain fails. The majority of people in the U.K. seem content to live down-beat existences. Most homes seem to be little more than spaces where people exist; most food for most people is still just fuel – and while I saw a comment some days ago to the effect that the great effect of lock-down is that “nobody had to think about what they wear any more” I must admit that I laboured under the belief that that was, in any case, the norm in this country of shabby dressers. If what I encounter on the streets passes for what this nation considers to be good wear, then I despair…

Where in Britain it is otherwise, we tend to go to the other extreme and try too hard. That is the problem with the smarter residences, shops and eateries: they are far too self-consciously trying to be smart – and as I said, that is pretty much enough to guarantee they fail. Besides, smartness in Britain often carries too many class connotations of exclusivity to be truly charming – and is regrettably why too many people seem to do it. I struggle to think of much true charisma in Britain; even where one might have expected to find it, it is too often absent. Chelsea and Notting Hill are, at the end of the day, just more parts of over-built London, at least unless you have to odd billion or two to splash around. Same bad roads, same poor air.

The problem with smartness in Britain is that it is not the norm – and one feels that it is only done for reasons of snobbery or over-charging. Too often, one senses that noses will be looked down on entering such places without a Rolex and an Amex Platinum. Which is definitely not part of charisma; quite the opposite.

The difficulty here is that real charisma exists purely on its own intrinsic terms. The moment it is done to impress, to make money, or just for show, it degenerates into mere pretentiousness, even churlish one-upmanship. People and places that are truly charismatic carry on doing it even when no one is looking – for they are just being what they are. This may also explain how very ordinary things can be charismatic: a coffee served in a stylish cup is, to my mind, infinitely more appealing than the same coffee served in a chipped mug; all the better if it is properly made, rather than instant blend (though I suspect a true charismatic would get away with serving the latter…) But as soon as you know it is just being done for show, it too is ruined.

I don’t know what we mere mortals can do. Perhaps the answer is nothing, except perhaps bathe in reflected glory. The moment we try, by definition, we will fail. And yet, the wisdom of Sprezzatura also knows that the nonchalance requires (unseen) work. It is a fact that those stylish places need to be maintained; decisions need to be made about how things are done there. The same goes for individual lifestyles: given that we are not really talking about the financial constraints here, people make decisions about how they do things, some do one way, others the opposite. Often in Britain, the default seems to be downbeat, as though everyday life just isn’t worth it – and then people vainly try to dress things up for ‘special occasions’ – and all too often end up just looking crass. Perhaps they should try looking at the whole of life as a special occasion and stop worrying about whether anyone is watching or not.

On the other hand, if it remains true that real charisma is effortless and unconscious, does this really mean that the rest of us can’t work at our own? Ultimately it depends on attitude, and what perhaps puts many people off is the suspicion that charisma is egotism. While that can be the case (self-confidence can be beguiling), I think the words of Michael Bywater are significant: he dismissed it by saying that in effect it is a courtesy to others: a sign that you consider people and life – others, as well as yourself – worth the effort.

Here we have again the contradiction, that charisma just is what it is – and yet it is largely experienced by others. Maybe it is simply impossible for people to experience their own charisma – which may make you question why bother – and perhaps the whole construct in the first place. The same with places: while they exist on their own terms, you come away somehow feeling that they have done you a good turn, but you can still wonder whether life there would really be as good as it seems.

Yet that seems like a perfectly legitimate and affirmative worldview to me, one that says that any life can be made charming, if only you take the trouble. The same goes for charismatic places: it ought to be possible for charming places to exist anywhere – if only we make them so. There are plenty of humdrum places that have been given a lift; what is less certain is how well conscious effort works, and whether it successfully takes on its own life in the longer term.

In the end, it is perhaps just a mindset that makes the difference. And as for me, the very fact that I feel the need to ponder and write these things probably means that I’ve lost before I’ve begun…