Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Seeing the urban light

Fete-des-Lumieres-Place-des-Terreaux-Lyon

Fête des Lumières Lyon 2017

One of the things I admire about continental European countries is the way they ‘inhabit’ their towns and cities. While we in Britain have made great strides with revitalising our main urban areas in recent years, I always feel that the continentals, and in particular the French and Italians have a superior sense of urbanism. And it often extends to the smaller towns in a way that it often doesn’t in the U.K., where many of their equivalents feel half-hearted, if not hollowed-out.

Continental towns are not simply machines for shopping; they do not seem to have suffered from the corporate erosion of public space as has been highlighted here recently: for better or worse, squares and streets belong to all the people, and are not the sanitised pathways between shops that one sees here, with any ‘undesirable’ elements rapidly being moved on by private security guards. Consequently they seem to me to have a more authentic life to them, not that that is to diminish the hardship felt by the homeless, for example.

Another aspect of this is the number and scale of the festivals that take place; again Britain is catching up – we seem to have caught the habit of Christmas markets recently – but somehow we still don’t quite have the ‘conviction’ that comes from such festivities being long-established. Perhaps it will come with time.

I have always enjoyed the genuine communality of such festivals, amongst them the Herbstmesse and Fassnacht in Basel, and the Christmas market and Fête des Géants in Lille.

One on my bucket list is the Fête des Lumières in Lyon, which is has been happening this week. I like Lyon a lot: for a large city, it is remarkably civilised, and has a cosmopolitanism and sophistication that its British equivalents have yet to learn. The FdL is one of the most spectactular festivals I know, its technical accomplishment and, it has to be said expense, something that is beyond the ambitions of most cash-strapped British local Councils. That said, I think a large amount of it has to come down to vision, and it probably helps that the French have a great sense for graphic art, and they originated the ‘son et lumière’ spectacles of which this is probably the greatest. Every time watch, I am amazed at the creativity and technical accuracy of these artists of light. Enjoy the clips from this year’s festival.

 

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Well rounded people

bench

Autumn term 1975. Monday morning started with double woodwork – and for me the slightly strange experience of learning in my father’s department. Although it’s perhaps a pity it didn’t come mid-way through the week, I always looked forward to the lesson (which was not taught by my Pa…). Given the academic routine of the grammar school, I found great pleasure of making dovetail joints or turning bowls on the lathe for a change. Unlike certain of my father’s colleagues, I never saw practical lessons as inferior, and I think it is where my now much-valued aesthetic appreciation and streak of perfectionism came from. I well remember my father’s fury when, one day he was summoned to the Headmaster’s office (where he was still seen as the chippie) and instructed to repair fifty wooden exam desks. He replied that he was not the odd-jobs man. Indeed, he was and is a highly-skilled cabinet-maker.

It was also interesting how some of the best in the class during those lessons were not the academic stars (though there was crossover); I think it was good that this gave those with different talents a chance to shine – and the academic ones a taste of what it was like to struggle a bit.

This recollection is particularly in my mind at the moment as my father, now 83, (and still making violins for a hobby) is currently collaborating with a young friend and me to construct a facsimile of a mid-century Scandinavian piece of furniture  by Kai Kristiansen in American black walnut (shown in rosewood above). It is a wood he has never worked before and he is quite excited by the prospect; it is proving to be a most enjoyable experience, which has ranged from researching the original, to analysing the construction, adapting it for the workshop and personal taste, to sourcing suitable timber. A specification and price has been agreed, and construction will start shortly.

Practical skills have been repeatedly looked down on by educators in this country; it is though they are somehow insufficiently worthy, given their apparent lack of intellectual rigour. My former teacher Peter Whitton knew this was not true, for despite being a Classicist, he was never happier than in his woodwork shop, where he too turned out fine pieces.

At present, I am starting to look at what I do next; the medication is gone, and I can feel my mental strength returning little by little. Amongst a number of ‘irons in the fire’ I am tempted to branch part-time into interior design, a field I have followed for many years. I defy anyone to claim that the processes involved are intellectually weak; indeed, I know of few so demanding exercises as solving difficult design dilemmas. And then there is the fact that one (hopefully) has a beautiful end product, which can be admired by those with the aesthetic sensitivity to do so. It is very tempting to sign up for that diploma.

Last Friday, we went to the opening night of Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Life of Julie Cope at FirstSite in Colchester; I am also currently reading his book The Descent of Man, and despite Perry’s lurid persona and less than rigorous academic background, let no one claim that this is not both a skilled and highly erudite man.

At the other end of the spectrum, I know of individuals educated to the highest academic levels, who are not able to perform the simplest practical tasks for themselves, and who seemingly lack any ability really to see (in the deep sense) beauty in their surroundings. They may have trained minds (and I’m all for that) but they seem impoverished in other ways. Is this the cost of the strong emphasis on academia? The ultimate sadness for my father came some years ago when the Craft & Design department he had founded and developed over forty years was closed to make way for a computer suite. No more opportunity for today’s sixth formers to do something practical as part of their week’s programme.

This is short-sighted: many highly-educated people do also appreciate the arts and practical crafts; they provide a complete diversion into another rich aspect of life which I for one would never be without. Peter also knew this, as did the many clearly-thoughtful people at the Perry exhibition.

Only target-chasing educational managers seem snooty enough to disparage the breadth that comes from the empowerment to produce and appreciate tangible works. Our neighbouring nations such as Germany have never disparaged practical skills either – and a comparison of the two nations’ economies tells all that need to be said about that.

Bring back double woodwork on Monday mornings – especially in the most academic schools. Breadth, depth and richness in education is important.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why I am not wearing a poppy this year.

It’s a great pity when life is so full of avaricious commercial operators shouting at the public, that even those who do inalienable good, such as charities, feel the need to copy them. I do sympathise – how else are they to be heard? But in fact, I think that is a misconception: most of the public is entirely capable of distinguishing between the two and acting accordingly. I rather suspect that the problem comes from the executives of charities, who more and more closely resemble the CEO’s of big business, maybe on  occasions are even one and the same, and self-promotion is the one strategy they know. After all, they probably have targets to meet.

So I was somewhat displeased to receive a good month or more ago, in the mail (which will have cost) a wooden cross (which will have cost) with a poppy attached, some rather over-assertive promotional material and a donation form. This commemoration is for good reason focussed on 11th November, and does not need to start in early October just to steal a march on the competition.

My other reasons are regrettably more political: the lesser is the memory that for years, my former employer required me to wear a poppy (at my own expense)  ‘to set a good example to the pupils’. I felt it did the opposite, by turning a voluntary gesture of patriotic remembrance into an act of corporate policy. And it certainly removed from those who might have wanted it, the opportunity to set an example of a different kind.

And more seriously still, in the past twelve months, I have seen too many social media pictures of French war cemeteries deployed in the service of the Brexit movement. If the two are to become conflated, I will never wear a poppy again: this Remembrance should remain essentially apolitical, and if those whom I consider to have committed the most atrocious act of national vandalism are going to claim, even incidentally, the poppy as a symbol of their so-called patriotism, then I can no longer comply.

Inasmuch as any of those largely conscripted dead really held the lofty ideals we often attribute to them, I suspect they too would be appalled at the wanton damage by some in this country to the internationalism that was founded to stop more having to follow them. Furthermore, the misappropriation of symbolism by overt nationalist movements has far too many uncomfortable historic precedents for me to be comfortable with it.

I may be taking this too seriously, but I think not: these are serious matters. I hope someone from the Haig Fund, which I have supported for many decades is reading this, and reflecting on the implications of other people following suit. It is a long-standing national institution that does not need to stoop to base commercialism; charitable giving is a principled, voluntary activity, and the hard-sell only serves severely to undermine that ethic.

And in the current political climate, the Haig Fund (as it was) perhaps also needs to look hard at who is, by accident or design claiming its totem, and for what purposes.

Opinion & Thought

Discriminating? Discerning? Definitely!

wine

I can’t remember where the phrase comes from – perhaps an episode of Yes Minister, or maybe The Good Life – but it goes, somewhat pleadingly, “…but we are discerning people…!”

The implication is that there is a group within society whose views in matters of taste and judgement are superior to the rest. It is something that has intrigued me for a long time, simply because of the very complex questions it raises about matters of aesthetic merit, quite apart from the less appealing but still interesting overtones of social snobbery and elitism.

Even the words are difficult: while we might accept that discrimination may be a good thing when it comes to a choice of wine, it most certainly would not be were the issue the politics of race, gender, age, disability or intelligence –  and quite rightly so. Discernment is perhaps discrimination’s gentler cousin – but it still implies the ability (and entitlement?) to make the ‘right’ judgements about things.

I suppose the deep assumption behind this blog is that discernment – discrimination even – is at least part of the secret to a satisfying life. Some people might see even that claim as rather totalitarian – but I really don’t see the point in allowing all sorts of indiscriminate twt into one’s life, whether that be in one’s personal mores, the way one treats others, the general ‘standards’ one aims at, or the material or intellectual things with which one surrounds oneself. And I don’t think that hair-shirt wearing simply because others may be unwilling or unable to follow suit is really the best way to tackle that particular problem. Otherwise, life simply becomes a race to the bottom.

We don’t have very consistent standards about this though: many would probably accept that some people have better judgement than others when it comes to a matter like wine, antiques or art, less so when discussing food, perhaps and very few might accept the same when considering music or fashion. Why this should be so is difficult to fathom; perhaps it relates to the perceived ability or entitlement of individuals to access those fields and make meaningful decision about them.

But there still remains the difficulty that verdicts about good/bad and right/wrong can ultimately be nothing more than the product of subjective consensus between individuals – and then we get into the whole social minefield of which groups (should?) have the authority to decide what, for example is ‘good’ art. Very often, the whole matter is inextricably tied up with matters of social class and power, with Establishment values both holding sway, and also being used as a kind of passport to entry of that particular clique.

Yet history shows that quite often the Establishment gets it wrong: given that ‘genius’ often correlates with individuals who disrupt established norms, the wrong-footing of the cultural elites is a regular feature of art history. Bizet, Modigliani and Miles Davis are just three examples of people who were initially rejected, only to be hailed for their genius at a later stage. So even now, can we really be objective that Picasso was a great artist whereas a graffiti-hoodlum is not? What about Banksy? Or the political murals of Northern Ireland and elsewhere?

So social acceptability is actually a very unreliable measure of quality, for all there are plenty of vested interests that might want us to believe otherwise.

Are wines that sell for hundreds of pounds a bottle really worth so much more than the average supermarket offering? I suspect many people would say not; the usual argument seems to be that if you like it, that’s all that matters. And yet, on the one occasion in my life when I tasted a truly distinguished wine, a Château D’Yquem, I was forced to concede that the experience was unlike any other wine I had ever drunk. The fact that it is only periodically produced, using techniques of the most extreme care and – yes – discrimination regarding what is acceptable, produced an incomparable result.

So perhaps it comes down to matters of aestheticism: the surprise about that d’Yquem was the fact that I could still taste it a good ten minutes later, so intense was it, even a slightly unnerving experience if you are not expecting it. And from that, where are we to go with all those other fields where discernment appears to play a part? What about music? Food? Fashion?

Having listened to almost no music whatsoever during my illness of the last year (when you’re not in the mood, it’s just annoying noise) my first resort has been classical music; after that long silence, it is all the more clear to me at least, that the intricacy of that music, the purity of the sound, and perhaps above all its ability to capture mood and emotion really does transcend all other types. And yet, even that is not going to convince many!

But as I have listened more, I have also rediscovered the lighter but still very subtle nuances in the various traditional musics that I enjoy, particularly the Irish and Scottish traditions. They too are capable of being very moving indeed, but they are also perhaps one of the less socially-acceptable forms of music according to conventional tastes.

As my sense of enjoyment has returned, food has started again being something more than mere fuel, and the pleasure of properly made pizza, pasta and other simple dishes is back. But note, my use of ‘properly made’: I still have preferences that I consider to be superior to the alternatives – for there is a huge difference between an wood-baked artisan pizza and the average chain restaurant offering, and having eaten both, no one will persuade me otherwise!

In the final reckoning I think it has to come down to how receptive one is to aesthetic experiences. It is also a very complex matter: knowledge of the ‘authenticity’ of that wood-oven pizza is most definitely part of the package – but why should the cognitive aspects of the experience be disregarded? Likewise, some music simply has more innate sonic qualities than other – but the ability to know that depends not on the music but on the receptiveness of the listener. It does not mean, incidentally, that other forms of ‘aesthetically lesser’ music do not have their place: they simply have different purposes – but it may be pushing it to claim that all forms of music are aesthetically equal.

When it comes to clothing, for me there are certain fixed qualities, such as tactility , colour and texture of the material, the fit (whether it flatters or not), and the standard of the craftsmanship. Nothing especially to do with a particular ‘fashion’ though most certainly the cultural connotations that clothes can carry can influence the emotional experience one has of them.

Some things are as close to ‘definitely better’ as it is possible to be: I think that natural fibres are superior to synthetic ones for very deep, primitive sensual reasons, nothing to do with conscious preferences. In the same way, I suspect that acoustic music tends to chime more deeply with the human psyche than the inevitable distortions of amplified sound – which more often than not then tries to compensate by use of excessive volume. Not at all the same thing.

What I do not accept is that some sectors of society should – or do – have a monopoly on ‘good taste’. This seems to afflict some nations more than others: the consensus about what makes a ‘good’ espresso or croissant are pretty-much universal in the cultures concerned, the ‘rules’ surrounding them are there for widely accepted practical reasons and cross social boundaries.

While high demand does tend to inflate prices, the ability to buy is not in itself a measure of aesthetic value. I do not like the way in which the Establishment often considers it has cornered the market in good taste and priced it accordingly – but equally I am not keen on the kind of inverse-snobbery of those who will do anything just to prove the opposite.

Discernment in aesthetic matters has the potential to enrich the lives of any and every one: ‘judgement’ is a skill that can be learned through experience; it does not have to carry a huge price tag, just the willingness to look, feel, reflect and compare. But I equally do not accept (or even entirely understand) the opposite viewpoint that discernment should be reviled for its supposedly-elitist overtones: even at the most basic sensory level, not everything is equal in this world.

 

 

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Sartoria

Suits E.U., sir!

I can hardly be the only British gent who is regularly bombarded by advertising from Jermyn Street shirt manufacturer Charles Tyrwhitt. I wrote to them several years ago pointing out that while I approved of their democratising marketing strategy, I would be more happy to buy their clothes if their tailoring and design was not all so old-school British. I pointed out that traditional British menswear is often starchy-formal and has associations of occupation and social stereotype that I don’t feel happy with – and that’s without the age profile that it still implied.

I received one of their habitually jolly letters in reply, explaining that this was what the British market still wanted. Well, some years on, I note a distinct modernisation of Tyrwhitt’s catalogue, with sharper styles and fabrics sourced from amongst others, good Italian mills. I also noticed recently, the first appearance of a non-white model in the catalogue: well done – but about time too! I’m certainly not claiming any influence over the decision, but I think it has made Tyrwhitt a more appealing clothier, and has hopefully broadened their market as a result.

While there’s no question over the quality of traditional British men’s tailoring, my reservations still hold, and this is why I tend to prefer French and Italian style – it is slightly sharper while also less formal, more open to interpretation and relatively devoid of the overtones of social class.

So I’ve been delighted to discover more recently, a number of British companies that are challenging the conservative norm by offering British clothing – designed for British body shapes – while looking to the continent for some of their design inspiration. I will be reviewing items by a number of these companies in forthcoming posts.

In the meantime, I must admit I rather worry about the effect of Brexit on this welcome development. Here we have companies doing their design work in one country, sourcing their materials and doing their manufacturing in others, and retailing from others again. A number of them seem to be relatively small start-ups, and one might almost suggest that there is the making of a pan-European industry here, which provides for a range of clients by taking the requisite elements from the different traditions. And that’s without the large number of European companies now selling internationally. If it leads to an improvement in the general sartorial standards of the male British population, that will be a welcome bonus, too.

I will mention the names of Chester Barrie clothing, Lussoti Shoes, Scarosso Shoes and of course Charles Tyrwhitt as some that seem to be taking this route (there are others) – and end by saying that I hope they have plans for dealing with Brexit, because it would be a great shame if their interesting business models and the stylish, well made products they are making, were destroyed as a result of this madness.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Getting on with the in-laws

Pont d'Europe
Pont de l’Europe, Strasbourg. France on this side, Germany on t’other.

 

The marriage vows of the Christian church revolve around the notion of lifetime commitment. If there is a lack of commitment, or a failure to take those vows seriously, the chances of the marriage lasting are immediately weakened . So it has been with Britain and the rest of the E.U.

A few brave souls have recently been suggesting that there should be more rather than less European engagement in Britain, and it is perhaps instructive to consider what might have happened had British domestic power decided to encourage the nation fully to engage with the E.U.

I wonder how many people know that the southern counties of England and the northern regions of France technically constitute Trans-Manche Euro-Region. It is part of a policy called Interreg dating from the 1990s to foster cross-border co-operation in all parts of Europe.

Here is how the Daily Mail reported it in 2006:

New map of Britain that makes Kent part of France…and it’s a German idea

For centuries the people of Kent have called their county the Garden of England. So they might find it quite a surprise that – according to the European Union at least – they are actually part of France.

Along with next-door Sussex, Kent has been rolled in with the Calais area on a map drawn up for Brussels.

The Tories accused the EU of plotting to undermine nation states and even “wipe Britain off the map”.

Never failing to use the E.U. to make domestic capital, Eric Pickles claimed:

“Under the Labour Government, Britain has already been subdivided into regions as part of John Prescott’s empire building.

“I fear Eurocrats could literally wipe Britain off the map and hardworking families and pensioners should be concerned that Europe wants the authority to build a database of their homes – this threatens to lead to an EU-wide property tax.

The Daily Telegraph reported the same development thus:

New EU map makes Kent part of same ‘nation’ as France

They have tried to redraw the map of Europe before. Now a German-led “conspiracy of cartographers” stands accused of trying to use a new European Union directive to give Brussels the power to change national boundaries.

Under the changes, those living in Kent and East Sussex would find themselves not inhabitants of Britain, but the TransManche region, where their fellow citizens would not be their English-speaking neighbours but the French-speaking population of northern France.

North of the TransManche would be the North Sea region, taking in all of eastern England and vast areas of Scandinavia, Germany and the Low Countries.

Western Britain and Ireland would become the Atlantic region, a huge zone that also takes in parts of France, Spain and Portugal.

Perhaps most bizarre would be the Northern Periphery region, lumping together the population of north-west Scotland with their very distant cousins in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland and Iceland.

The barely-disguised xenophobia made no attempt at balance, barely even at accuracy, beyond a footnote to the effect that the Euro-regions were largely intended to co-ordinate economic, environmental and transport planning, and that they were chaired by local authorities. There was no attempt whatsoever to consider why such co-operation might have been beneficial.

No matter that plenty of people in northern Scotland do not consider Scandinavians to be ‘very distant’ cousins, or that there is already a healthy cultural exchange going on between the ‘Celtic fringe’ nations of Europe.

The implications of such reporting for British perceptions of Europe hardly needs further explaining.

Our failure in Europe became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Had we joined Schengen and the Euro and –yes – shared the associated risk, the practical impact would have been significant. For example, the planned trains from the British regions to the continent would have remained viable because domestic passengers could have filled empty seats (as happens every day on the continent), rather than their being neurotically ‘sealed’ on departure. Without the deterrent of airline-style check-in at the Tunnel, it would become as easy to commute from say Ashford to Lille as it is across any continental border. The Channel would have become no greater barrier than the Alps. Had we joined the Euro, there would not even be the inconvenience of differing currencies.

I have a friend who lives in Basel; every day, his son used to travel to school in Germany and thought very little of it. Every day, thousands of people travel from Belgium into the Greater Lille area, from Kehl in Germany into Strasbourg, and from France into Basel and Geneva to work or shop. It is a non-event. But we British have never been allowed to find out what benefits this could bring. Our political classes have utterly failed to see that the world has moved on. Their every action still reeks of a colonial mindset where Britain’s supposed ‘sovereignty’ needs to be defended against hostile outsiders, no matter what cost to the nation. They cannot get their heads around the fact that Britain is now – and should be – just one amongst the many partner-nations in Europe. They never even got round to removing European Affairs from the Foreign Office. Which says it all.

In fact, the real issue here is the refusal of the British Establishment to relinquish power even when it is clearly in the nation’s interest. We see the same thing evident in their reluctance to move power down the scale to the regions as well. It is all about keeping maximum power in Whitehall.

I believe we would be in a very different place now, had British opinion-formers decided to commit to the European marriage rather than remaining the frigid, stand-offish partner who only ever wanted to remain single anyway.

It is true that as an island nation, we Brits probably had more work to do to get used to our new marriage: visiting the in-laws is rather more involved than walking across a bridge. But had those in government taken a different line, by now we would be seeing the benefits of a seamless relationship with our partners.

Instead of declining post-Tunnel, the channel ports might have connected and thrived – and the shameless Brexit-disdain that the residents of Dover have shown for their opposite numbers in Calais might never have happened.

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

The God of Small Things

bresciani

It may seem rather pathetic that an established teacher, with many years’ experience and a professional blog to his name should be reduced to blogging about…. socks. But in the year since I stopped working, certain things have come into sharper perspective. Even though I worked hard to prevent it, I hadn’t realised the extent to which a regular sixty-hour week comes to dominate your life. Even while not at work, or travelling the thirty miles to and from school, much time was spent chewing over professional matters. Pretty much everything else was shoe-horned in around the edges, at least mentally, even when I was supposedly doing other things. It did me no good.

So it is remarkably pleasurable to be able to get up in the morning and have the time actually consider what clothes I want to wear, rather than just flinging on the usual work-compliant suit and tie. I have always enjoyed men’s style, and even tried to carry this through to the rough-and-tumble of the school environment. I felt it was part of setting a good example, and maintaining high personal standards.

But now I can appreciate such niceties for their own sake, along with the pleasures of fresh morning coffee or an autumn walk. For reasons unknown to me at the time, during my period of convalescence I had the urge to renew my wardrobe, and again I have had time to choose carefully. It was remarkably cathartic.

Bresciani socks are about as good as they get, being made from top-quality materials by a skilled manufacturer in Italy. There are few outlets that retail them in the U.K., but a good choice can be had from meschausettesrouges.com in Paris. Twenty pounds for a pair of socks may seem outrageous, but as with many beautiful things, it is only when you receive them that one can appreciate the craftsmanship, the excellent fit, and the superb materials. So the price perhaps becomes a small one to pay for a small taste of excellence, and the fact that the article itself is so mundane somehow adds to the pleasure.

It’s easy to sneer at such apparent vanity, but it occurred to me that there is a deeper and more significant point here. The key to appreciating fine things is a willingness to see rather than just look, to sense and savour the material qualities of the world around us rather than taking them for granted. To stop what one is doing and just appreciate our sensory surroundings is akin to the ‘living in the moment’ that Mindfulness promotes as an antidote to mental angst. It is a tendency that can be developed with practice. I think it works – it is not shamelessly materialistic to appreciate the sensory qualities of material things – and all it takes is the time and restraint to stop and do so. In fact, the appreciation of what one has, rather than envy at what one does not, is the antithesis of the status anxiety that afflicts so many lives.

But that, I fear, is the one thing hassled modern lives deprive us of: the time to stand and stare (or feel). I suspect it is also what we hurried north-Europeans yearn for in our envious perceptions of the South – the time for the leisurely savouring of life’s pleasures, in a way our cold-climate Protestant-ethic culture does not really encourage. And the more you do it, the more one learns to value superior quality, not in the envious sense, but simply for the extra pleasure it brings. I suspect that is the secret of southern European brio, and it is a cultural meme that we would do well to learn.

Much of modern life seems to me to thrive on dissatisfaction and anxiety; instead of devoting time to fire-fighting on mental health matters, maybe it would be better to dedicate good time to the appreciation of the small pleasures in life that might make emergency action less necessary.

Like an innocent appreciation of the simple, tactile pleasures of a small piece of beautiful fabric.

https://www.meschaussettesrouges.com/en/  (usual disclaimer)