Opinion & Thought

The Passeggiata Paradox

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

“You two look smart. Big occasion?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food, Opinion & Thought

It’s a scoop!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion & Thought

Filling the void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Consume – lovingly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Silver lining?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

Will the new “British Railways” be truly Great?

It is hardy news that the British national sense of self has taken a battering in the past half-decade – but in fact, the decline has been going on for far longer than that. It is deeply ironic that the political party that claims to represent most strongly the national sentiment has been most instrumental in demolishing many of the physical expressions of that nationhood, which spoke to people of a coherent sense of community no matter where they happened to live.

A nation exists to a significant extent in the minds of those who experience it; symbolism is important for fostering a sense of common identity and belonging. That in turn is important for creating familiarity with, and loyalty to, a national identity in a way that can embrace the multiple individual identities and ways of life that co-exist in any nation. Done well, they can become a source of shared pride in the institutions that we all use.

I wonder if the politicians who have spent the last four decades fragmenting and privatising most of the key institutions of this country realised what they were dismantling; not only was the disposal of the “family silver” often done at a huge mark-down, but in the process, many of the institutions that embodied the national identity of this country were abolished. We lost a sense of national infrastructure, and a significant part of our sense of cohesion as a result. I am by no means a nationalist by inclination, but that does not prevent me from regretting the way in which this nation’s symbolic institutions have been destroyed in a way that others have not permitted. Having a national “sense of self” need not be incompatible with internationalism, even if some see it otherwise: what I would like to feel about this country is that it can look its peers in the eye as equals, neither better nor worse than they.

This is not about the economic performance of sometimes-inefficient state enterprises, though experience has shown that their private replacements have been only a patchy improvement at best – but the fact that in breaking them up, an important intangible quality of nationhood was also lost. It is perhaps telling that the only one that remains reasonably intact, the NHS, has increasingly become a focus for precisely such national pride.

The infrastructure of a nation needs to stand for more than shallow commercialism; it is a statement of confidence and pride in that nation. It also represents one of the relatively few ways in which citizens can interact directly with the machinery of the State. As such, I have always felt that things like hospitals, schools, post offices and railway stations merited the best ‘identities’ that could be devised: national ikons of sorts.

If that sounds bizarre to British ears, then I can only suggest that we have become so used to seeing such interactions as a simple economic race to the bottom, that we no longer perceive the more symbolic value of belonging that can be a part of them.

Unfortunately, the organs of the British state were run down for years before they were abolished; their supposed inefficiencies were hardly surprising given the low and intermittent nature of their funding. Even in our small town of 5000, the local post office was a civic space; sadly, in its latter years it was neglected to a point of semi-decrepitude, and then replaced by a ‘position’ on the counter of a local convenience store. True to name, its extended hours are indeed convenient – but the loss of civic pride and focus was nonetheless the price we paid. Across the nation, Post Offices have been dumbed down until their civic function was all but unnoticeable.

Another major expression of this idea is the national rail network – but a quarter of a century after it too was privatised, dismantled and fragmented, it seems there is finally hope of a better future. The recent Williams-Shapps report seems to have accepted that fragmentation was a mistake, and that there is a need to re-establish a coherent, national institution.

There has already been plenty of criticism from both left and right; for some, nothing short of full renationalisation will do, while for others, anything that impedes red-blooded commercial competition is anathema. There is plenty of detail to be worked out in the next couple of years, but what matters to me is the fact that we may get a unified national institution back. And that ought to be good for the nation’s sense of self, in the way that Scotrail has become an emblem north of the border.

I’m not hung up on who ultimately runs such institutions and am not unsympathetic to the suggestion that commercial innovation is not something the State does well on its own; maybe there is indeed a place for partnership with the private sector. But I am most definitely unsympathetic to the notion that communal aspects of the State’s identity and purpose should be run solely has hard-driven commercial operations – not least because they have little or no time for the more symbolic values mentioned above. The establishment of a national co-ordinating body (even one with the naff “Great” on the front of the obvious British Railways) is a recognition that railways are inherently an integrated network, whose purpose is more societal than commercial.

If they get the branding and wider planning right, in due course we may end up with a national carrier to be as proud of as the Swiss are of theirs. The signs are again promising: the retention and up-dating of the classic double arrow symbol and the re-adoption of the Rail Alphabet font. Yes, these are seemingly-superficial aspects of a much more profound restructuring – but they can hopefully become the “shop window” for what could become a matter of national pride. I just hope that the final designs are as sleek and forward-looking as the best continental equivalents, and not some horrible, fake-heritage return to the “golden age of the Big Four” pre 1947, or some bombastic confection that majors on in-your-face Union Jacks. There are more subtle ways – but on this, I am less confident…

The key things needed are adequate funding, long-term certainty and operational freedom; if those are delivered, it will indeed be progress in this short-termist nation. The signs are surprisingly good – we now need to see them converted into practice, with simpler ticketing, more coherent timetables and trains designed for quality not capacity-maximisation. Whether the private sector will be sufficiently interested in fixed-profit concessions remains to be seen, though it presently seems they will: after the Covid bail-outs, they are in no position to argue.

Equally, it should be made impossible for them to boost their profits by cost-cutting, which is inevitably reflected in the quality of the service. I am encouraged to see this government (which I mostly despise) accepting that state oversight of state assets is a desirable thing, in the name of public service. I think that is a more major shift in mindset than has yet been realised, and it would be good to see it extended to other sectors. Covid has made clear the necessity of good public infrastructure, and the limits of the commercial sector for providing it. If a sweet spot can be found whereby private-sector skills are harnessed for the public good, in return for a reasonable payment, that is indeed very encouraging, and I think ideologically acceptable.

The key thing is that the public interest (for which read the state) that should be calling the shots, not opportunist private profiteers. That includes valuing the more symbolic aspects of national life that have been ignored for far too long: when I am moving around the country, I want to feel as though I am in the care of the State in which I travel, not just a figure on a private company’s spreadsheet.

Opinion & Thought

Full flow

One of my go-to books during times of difficulty is Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and I’m currently re-reading it. By no means a trite self-help book, it offers inspiring and challenging advice on using one’s life to the full.

The author is a world-renowned psychologist, and yet he seems almost unknown to lay audiences despite his having written several general-readership books, including the one mentioned above. His work has involved collaborations across the globe, into the nature of the most fulfilling experiences that people can experience. I suspect there are many millions more who could benefit from his insight.

The important message  – and my reason for mentioning it here – might be summed up as, “it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it” that makes all the difference to a fulfilled life; something that I think is also encapsulated in the spirit of Sprezzatura. It also seems to come as close as it is possible to, to justifying the claim that there are indeed ‘better’ and ‘worse’ ways of living life. The catch, of course, is that these are not necessarily to be found in the expected places. Above all, trying to conform to external criteria about what life ‘should’ be, is doomed to failure when it comes to personal satisfaction.

Csikszentmihalyi’s research found that the nature of profound human satisfaction does not differ very much across the world, even between extremely different cultures – though the ways in which it is achieved may do. The principal distinction is between things that are done for their intrinsic pleasure, and those that are done with an expectation of external pay-back. Flow and drudgery can be found in the same activity; the distinction comes from the motivation and mindset involved. The book is not excessively judgemental of modern society, but it does lament the extent to which modern life, attitudes and behaviours have been increasingly driven by precisely such external interests – and correlates it with human beings’ failure to grow life-satisfaction by anything like as much as they have their material wealth.

Flow arises when having an ‘optimal experience’, to which Csikszentmihalyi gives the name “autotelic” – in other words, an activity which is its own goal or purpose; a matter, perhaps, of the journey being the destination. In the state of flow, a number of things happen, including total absorption to the extent of losing one’s conscious sense of self, and the loss of a sense of time. Also unimportant is any defined ‘reason’ for doing the activity: it is its own reason.

This is how, over time, people come to have complex experiences – in other words ones where the task is closely-matched to their competence, such that they experience neither the anxiety of inadequacy nor the boredom of under-challenge. Instead, they experience a rewarding sense of personal agency.

Another essential aspect of Flow is that the actions that create it have to be voluntary; if they are externally commanded, this puts us straight back in the realm of activities that are extrinsically defined. However, the strength of this concept is that almost no activity need be excluded; the secret is to define whatever one is doing on one’s own terms. Perhaps the most persuasive aspect of this comes from the way even people held in solitary confinement often redefine their situation in terms of tasks or challenges they set themselves to stop them losing hope or sanity. Even in the most extreme circumstances, the mind has the capacity to take control of its own actions and turn them to benefit.

The conundrum with Flow is that the more competent one becomes, the greater the demands need to be in order to maintain the required level of challenge. While this may seem unrewarding, it is actually the key benefit of the whole concept: in effect it defines the process of human growth. By accepting such challenges, we inevitably become better at things – and by doing so, we refine our understanding and appreciation in a way that moves us from ignoramus, through novice, to expert. But we still need to remember that the only way that works is to do this entirely for our own satisfaction, not for any kudos that it might bring.

And that brings us neatly back to the underpinning idea behind this blog: that almost everything in life is worth doing – but the greatest ‘worth’ comes not from just doing it any old how (as modern society often seems to suggest) but doing it well; from allowing our innate curiosity to guide us towards the niceties of life, where we increasingly refine both our competence and our appreciation of every aspect of life, simply for the self-satisfaction and personal affirmation that it brings. Thus, doing things well – that is with complexity, skill and deep appreciation – is nigh-on objectively better than doing them in a trivial, superficial and extrinsic way. Or than simply never engaging with them in the first place.

Sadly, modern attitudes to discrimination seem to have been misapplied here: those who become connoisseurs in their chosen fields often tend to be lambasted for their perceived elitism, rather than envied for the personal reward that deep appreciation and expertise can bring. Or maybe it is that they are seen and envied for somehow being superhuman, when all they have done is apply a mindset and technique that is actually available to everyone. The error is to judge them according to perceived societal (i.e. extrinsic) values, rather than appreciate that the whole point of deep appreciation and skill is not the acclaim it can bring, but the internal reward of just doing something well. The fact that Flow can be found in almost anything – even something as mundane as doing the housework – comes down to the way one approaches it, rather than the inherent nature of activity itself.

Those who look on, perhaps criticising the perceived, apparent ‘superiority’ of people who make this journey while never bothering to do so themselves, will never begin to understand by just how much they are missing the point. The point of Flow is definitively not to impress; just to lead a satisfying life. Modern life (even in lockdown) can be dull, trivial and pointless – but it doesn’t have to be; all the difference lies in our heads.

Opinion & Thought


In times like these, when we cannot be sure what even the practicalities of life will be like twelve months’ from now, it’s not surprising that there is much debate about what life more generally might be like in future. Writing in the latest edition of Prospect Magazine, the Archbishop of Canterbury calls for a renewed appreciation of the interdependence of people everywhere. More or less what you might expect the nation’s senior cleric to be saying – but Justin Welby is a rather more grounded individual than some of his predecessors, having worked in industry before moving into the Cloth.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that he quotes from a recent book by Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England. Carney mentions an encounter with Pope Francis, who told him, “Your job is to turn the market back into humanity”. Carney develops this theme and discusses how the ‘market economy’ has increasingly become a ‘market society’ in which things essential to a fulfilled life, such as beauty, happiness, joy and relationships have been either marginalised or commodified. For many, life has become the functional exercise in economic rationality that classical economics always pretended it is; anywhere where life is lived solely for its financial efficiency or expediency, this is in effect the case. Anywhere where non-earning life is spent in ‘recreational’ expenditure, the same force has taken hold. Imagination, culture and creativity do not often put food on the table.

I suppose that Sprezzatura blog was started to express my instinctive recoil from this. I have always found that the things that make life worth living, as opposed to tolerating, are far more diverse than those which figure in a purely economic sense. I have always been at a loss to comprehend the many who seem to find agency and self-fulfilment only in employment. Certainly, the wider experience of purposeful work can contribute many things to our lives beyond the simple meeting of economic necessity – but is that all there is to it? Over the years, I have been left with the impression that such people put so much of their time, effort and attention into their work that they inevitably neglect the rest of their lives, the things that might make them “rounded human beings”, equally competent in all aspects of their being. Even their earnings (and what they can be used for) seem of little consequence compared with the act of acquiring them. But what, fundamentally, is the point of living to work?

Bertrand Russell observed that ‘work’ is a construct devised in order to occupy people; there is truth (and probably necessity) in this. He also suggested that its effect has been to quash the necessity of devising more constructive and enjoyable ways of spending our time. He was not precious about this, emphasising the importance of play as well as highbrow activities. He argued that the constructive use of leisure is one of humanity’s last big challenges – but avoiding the issue simply leaves us facing a life of relatively meaningless toil. True, the rewards of work can be wider than this, but for many, the reality is that they spend more of their lives enriching others (not only materially) than they do themselves.

I wonder why this is acceptable. Perhaps the national mindset has something to do with it – and in recent decades, that has indeed placed Work on the high altar of life’s purposes. The expected decrease in workload that was to derive from modern technology has not happened; the work has simply changed in nature. What’s more, cutbacks may have imposed greater loads on those who remain. But I fail to understand those who, it seems, will sacrifice almost any other aspect of their lives for their work.

My mind is still troubled by the notion that so much of that effort has often gone into the furtherance of people other than ourselves, many of whom show no intention of neglecting their own lives, even as they expect that of us. I don’t see it as selfish or narcissistic to assert our own value as human beings, or to ensure that our own lives flourish too: “Attend to your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs”.

In economic terms, the capital we accrue for others yields far greater returns that the labour that we provide does for us; even in the public sector, executive pay in health and education has pulled away from that of the mainstream workforce, to the extent that I conclude that this is a functional consequence of the quasi-privatisation process. An equitable deal it is not, without our having to give them our souls as well.

All of which led to a certain reaction recently, when it was suggested that the concept of ‘the Good Life’ which Sprezzatura promotes, is self-indulgent; even rather narcissistic.

I’m not quite sure what is so wrong with the idea of a good life. I wonder if the suspicion is a hangover of the Protestant Ethic that still seems to drive our attitude to work – perhaps coupled with the class-memory of a long-hierarchical society: Life is not meant for enjoying; not if you are Us, anyhow.

I would be the first to agree that defining life only in material terms is likely to be unsatisfying and shallow. There has been enough observation of status anxiety to suggest that people who pursue fulfilment via this route rarely find it. Human psychology dictates that material possessions lose their early allure, and the only chance of rediscovering the buzz of ownership comes from buying more, of being perpetually dissatisfied. What’s more, it is all too easy to confuse the motives: where ownership of desirable possessions is perceived as the measure of both personal credibility and social standing, it is all too easy to be swept up into the cycle of mindless, competitive consumption.

I don’t think that scenario really meets the definition of a fulfilled life. But I should add, I don’t think we should feel unduly guilty about material possessions either – provided they are owned knowingly, and for the ‘right’ reasons. While they cannot bring us limitless reward, ownership of genuinely-treasured things can still make an appreciable difference to our lives.

William Morris captured it when he wrote, “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. Substitute “house” for “life” and we might have something to guide us here. The important thing is not the status that possessions (whether material or not) may bring, but the joy they can (with limitations) add to our lives, when defined purely by our own criteria. This is not narcissism, but an honest appreciation of that which enhances us.

I lack sympathy equally with those who go out to work in order to stuff their lives with status symbols, those who are too busy working to notice or care what occupies the rest of their lives – and those who deny that any kind of personal comfort or other active choice is anything other than the work of the devil.

It is true, material possessions alone do not do the job. A useful concept here comes from Aristotle:  Eudaimonia, or the concept of flourishing. That word helpfully encapsulates all those things that can lead to human development and growth, including both material enjoyment, but also the non-material values mentioned by Carney. Denying the validity of any of those things only risks diminishing our lives from what they could be in one aspect or another – and for me, Sprezzatura is the vaccine against such risks.

While the word originally refers to an approach to (male) fashion, it has wider implications for the care we devote to our lives, without becoming hidebound by externally-dictated practices. It is also notable that sprezzatura does not define a specific style, so much as the bending of the rules according to unique personal interpretation, in order to please ourselves.

It is true that sprezzatura can become narcissism, as the Peacocks of the Pitti fashion fairs show – but this is because they have lost sight of the spirit of the thing: they are out only to attract attention.

True sprezzatura, I would argue, is better balanced; it is certainly concerned with the effect that one has on the world around us – but its real motive is self-expression. Why else would it have that rebellious streak?

Recent psychological research has suggested that there are in fact two kinds of narcissism: that which really is the expression of people who love themselves just too much – and a (perhaps more common) type, which is in reality the over-compensation of those who suffer from low self-worth. I think this is a critical distinction when it comes to reading and even judging those who appear to suffer from narcissism.

All of which might leave us wondering where a reasonable balance might be found, between self-indulgence and self-denial.

There are, no doubt, as many ideas of what makes a fulfilled life as there are human beings. For all that this blog advances certain preferences, it is not its place to criticise those who have different tastes or ideas. The real problem is not those who have a different idea of fulfilment, so much as those who have none. Lives that appear empty, where external validations such as work are the only reason to live them.

Yet who am I to judge whose they might be, or what they might do about it?

The opposite of Eudaimonia is presumably some kind of emptiness, lassitude or decline: the sort of experience that has seemed common during the Pandemic lockdowns. For all our diversity, homo sapiens seems to have some fairly universal basic needs. Amongst those might be social contact and a sense of purpose, and recent times have widely challenged these things. I would go further and suggest that there is something approaching an objective measure of these things’ impact – namely our state of mental (and to some extent physical) health: more things that seem to have suffered during the past year. I also suggest that those who have a richer internal sense of self may have been better equipped to deal with such challenges. Their ‘purpose’ is their own, ongoing lives in all their facets – and those have never deserted us.

Those fundamental needs represent both a challenge and a threat. The latter because their neglect can lead us down the rabbit-holes of poor wellbeing, and the former because it may well be their constructive, autonomous cultivation that provides the sense of eudaimonia that we need to be fully well.

In simple terms, we have to eat – so we might as well make it something to be actively relished as a joyous part of life: food not just fuel. We need shelter, so we might as well make our homes places where we can feel safe, comfortable and rested. We need to dress, so we might as well do so with imagination and style, that both expresses our personalities and tastes and hopefully brighten the day of those we meet. We need to placate our restless minds – so we might as well make it fulfilling.

And so it goes on. If life is worth living, it is worth living well – both for the moment-by-moment satisfaction of doing things to our satisfaction, and for the personal growth that developing such competence and (self-) knowledge brings. That requires active reflection and discernment – things that take the time that work all too often precludes. We can make of our internal lives as much or as little as we choose, no matter what our outward circumstances. That does include their material dimension – for we cannot attend to those inner needs without attending to their outward expressions.

Neither need we pretend that it is easy; life is never smooth for long. My own recent experience shows that the possession of a ‘good life’ is not always sufficient to prevent difficult times; but I am still absolutely convinced that the same good life is part of the antidote to those difficulties. Without holding on tight to the things in life that I truly value, I would have struggled much more with the challenges of recent months and years; I would have had no Pole Star on which to focus while the currents of poor mental health pushed me hither and thither.

I cannot claim, therefore, that sprezzatura is a failsafe vaccine against adversity; but its apparent absence from people’s lives is, I suggest, indicative of something. The neglect of the basic aspects and needs of one’s life speak of individuals and society that ultimately places a low priority on its own eudaimonia. That they often splurge on meaningless consumerism, externalising their search for happiness in the act of Purchasing, is just the other side of that inner void. That, to me, is akin to having lost any sense of the meaning of life – and poor health can sometimes be the all-too-real confirmation of that. It is easy to make the fundamental mistake of thinking that both eudaimonia and sprezzatura can only have material manifestations, whereas in reality all the non-material aspects of life are at least as important, just not as visible. My understanding of sprezzatura incudes the mind as well as the body, hence many of the topics covered in this blog.

Those who look on with a protestant sense of denial or disapproval are ultimately making their own choices. But it’s worth remembering that perceptions vary around the world: there is no absolute standard for either fulfilment or narcissism. So too does the joy with which different cultures live; I am not only thinking of the original Italian version here (Latin (ex-)Catholicism comes with its own hefty dollops of sorrow) – but it is perhaps about effects which various attitudes can bring to our lives. To what extent are people following different routes really happy? At least in a secular sense, that is the only criterion that matters. I accept that true narcissism is perhaps not really a route to happiness – but I am not sure that the self-denying, empty functionalism of other lives is really any better.

I suspect that inferiority-narcissism is indeed more prevalent than the truly self-aggrandising type. And I don’t think it is harmful. Our eudaimonia might even benefit from rather more of it. The consequence not letting it loose is the prospect of undervaluing our own lives simply because of received or imposed expectations of meaning and appropriateness, and living them less than fully, simply through fear or guilt of having higher expectations of what they might be.

Hopefully, the empty, consumerist rat-race of recent decades has now been shown for what it was: in the end, other things mattered more. That better future cannot only refer to material consumption, and not to work-as-life either. It needs to refer to a more holistic and balanced understanding of what makes a good life, of living every aspect of it to the full. The important thing is that people think for themselves about what that might mean. But unappreciative denial of the good things in life – wherever they come from – is surely not part of it.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Moment Zero

Image result for moment zero

I’ve seen it said that adult life is U-shaped. Wellbeing that is – which makes one’s fifties, by all accounts, the pits. No doubt this stage in life has always been one of realisation and readjustment – but I think that those of us presently at it are, by the standards of an advanced society, having it more than a bit rough.

People who were born a decade or more earlier than us experienced the full benefits of the new Welfare State and real social mobility through the Sixties and early Seventies; they too, who benefited from uplift in property prices in the following decades. People ten or more years younger than us have yet to realise what awaits them, while still having some of the benefits of a youth passed in Nineties, and perhaps more natural inhabitants of a commercialised age where everything has its price and principles are worth little. They may yet learn.

Those of us born in the Sixties grew up with our parents’ expectations of the welfare-state nation, but also with the decline and strife of the late Seventies, an endless cycle of economic decline and industrial conflict. From it emerged the Neo-Liberalism of the Thatcher years – just as we were entering the workforce. For a while, it really did seem to be creating new optimism; for those willing and able to ride the “greed is good, no such thing as society” mantra, there were rich pickings – and the legacy mindset of ruthless egotism that has dogged this country ever since. The rest spent our working lives in a period when labour laws were rolled back, and the authority of employers strengthened –their ballooning incomes in the deregulated economy simultaneously pushing up the cost of living – read housing – for the rest.

Thirty years on, we are also the first generation to be feeling the consequences: that whose health is beginning to turn, yet whose retirement seems less secure than for several previous generations; who – if the wave of stress-related mental health is anything to go by – are burned out by decades of long hours, long commutes and unremitting pressure in that deregulated workplace – yet who have also found (as I did) that support is all but non-existent. Not all of us were able to make a killing in a decade and retire in our thirties…

What is more, it’s now our turn to be the ones with elderly parents to support. All part of life’s cycle of course – except that the State no longer offers the support it once did; retirement ages are heading upwards, while Care for the elderly has been pared back and privatised. One relative’s life savings went on paying for her last years; there are others possibly heading in the same direction. If you are neither wealthy enough to bear this, nor destitute enough to qualify for meagre state aid, you are in an unenviable position: prudence on modest means is, it seems, penalised. Even the one small silver lining of losing the older generation – the inheritance and security that may follow – now seems less and less likely when such accumulated family wealth as there is, has all been spent on old age care. Not, I hasten to add, that I would for a moment deny those people what they need in their final years.

On top of all that has come major societal upheaval. I was nine when Britain joined what became the EU; during my early adulthood that offered optimism, much of which came to pass. It was the EU that permitted extended travel to other countries, opening eyes to different ways of life; it was the EU that eventually brought a similar material standard of living to this country; it was the EU that brought blue flags to British beaches, that replaced the Highland goat tracks seen on childhood holidays with proper modern roads and regional investment. It was the EU that facilitated the large number of cultural interactions I had with the continent, not least thanks to the mindset of constructive engagement that it created.

But now all that is gone. Sadly, it is precisely this de-insularisation that Brexiters seek to reverse. Those of us who regret it will no doubt try to continue as before, though we are inevitably impacted by changes in travel and trading arrangements. But the mindset of the country is turning inward; there are too many who never experienced those benefits of EU membership or who acquired the resultant mindset, and I expect this country gradually to retreat further into its old, inward-looking ways. And so we are likely, too, to be spending the final third of our lives in a society from whose values we feel increasingly alienated.

Then came the Pandemic, the impact of which on the U.K. I hardly need to describe. Suffice it to say that it mercilessly revealed the weaknesses of every nation – only in our case, there seem to have been many more than most of the population believed. In many ways, it has highlighted a doubt I have harboured for much of my life: that the U.K. is a dated place, ill-equipped to provide most of its people with the benefits of the modern age.

Evidence for this is everywhere to be seen, from the obsession with national “heritage”, to the enduring social snobbery. It is there in the failure to recognise the glaring inequalities of the country as incompatible with civilised modern values, its acceptance of them as some kind of ‘natural order’ and its utter failure to realise that life is not like this everywhere. It is there in the belief that life for the many is an unavoidable grind. Yet it is Britain that is abnormal; it is possible to make far more just societies than this. People in Germany, for instance, do not need to blow their life savings to cope with old age; and they still have a meaningful degree of workplace and social protection from insecurity.

Britain’s worst failure after the War was to fail to move on; all its ruling class wanted to do was to reassert the hegemony of earlier times. Despite the real advances made by the Welfare State, most of life in this country since has been about the reassertion of the ancient privileges of class, inheritance, and wealth that never really went away. Certainly, the message changed: the ruling class realised that its best chance of survival lay in changing the tone, while lying low with the reality. The same elite recognised that the main threat to its existence was the EU and its promotion of real social democracy; the more evident this became, the more strident its opposition did too. Its real achievement – as always – was to steer the national story away from its own negligence and to blame ‘Brussels’ for every national ill.

In hindsight, my own Moment Zero has been coming for several years. My increased involvement in local affairs has revealed the extent to which the old Establishment interests still control even this small part of the country. The views and assumptions, the sheer sense of entitlement I have encountered belonged, as I believed, to another era – but no, they are still going strong. These are the interests that run this country, largely for their own benefit – and still believe they have a divine right to do so.

My teaching of Politics has reinforced an impression of a governmental system whose interest was in hanging onto as much elite power and privilege as it could. The interest it feigned in democracy and social justice was just that: a charade designed to ensure that the nation did not notice how little it was giving away. It is still like it; the experience of both Brexit and the Pandemic have shown the bombastic complacency with which that elite largely behaves. And yet much of the nation just accepts that its elected parliamentarians are deeply unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. It is just how things are…

It is not always intentionally malign: those people too simply found on this planet what they did. But it is embedded beyond help: even those I know, who express democratic concern – seemingly genuinely, seem to fail to recognise the sense of entitlement that underlies the assumptions about their own position in the order of things. Real understanding would make no such assumptions.

The simple fact is, this country is socially, politically and economically outdated, and decrepit beyond repair – and the more obvious this becomes, the more openly those elites act to protect their own positions, be that through blatant cronyism or strident nationalism. The replacement of the EHIC card and ERASMUS educational programmes with UK equivalents is a de facto admission that such (European) things were inherently worth having; but now they need the nationalist coercion of a Union Jack on the cover. That is the whole point: as the cracks widen and the national deception becomes unignorable, the louder will the establishment trumpet the nationalist story that it has always used to sustain it.

I am now more aware than ever that the first half-century of my life has in effect been lived through one enormous national lie: namely that we were living in the pre-eminent, democratic, liberal democracy that had a genuine commitment to equality and opportunity for all. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It has taken time, age and ‘events’ finally to shine a light sufficiently strong to see that Britain’s national story is every bit as fake as those it tends to condemn in what it considers to be lesser countries. The narrative that I could not help but grow up with from 1964 onwards is actually the self-deception of an enduringly feudal society that still consents to the hegemony of a wealthy, hereditary elite which runs the place on a cocktail of aristocratic indolence, neglect, appeals to history and raw self-interest. It has utterly failed to modernise the country as was needed to bring it up to the same social democratic standards as our near neighbours; indeed, it has bolstered its own position by its opposition to this. It has failed to accept that a modern nation’s people exist to be anything more than a dumb work force to be exploited for one’s own enrichment, let alone people who need to be liberally educated, given decent standards and a real say in the running of the nation. But all that sounds, of course, “dangerously socialist” and is publicly condemned as such, by those whose interests oppose it.

Sufficient time has also elapsed to see the real impact of their policies; privatisation, we were told, would drive up standards and lead to more choice for all. In reality, it has made rentier activity more profitable than salaried. It turns out private companies abhor the much-vaunted competition; what they really seek is monopoly – captive markets that can be differentiated and milked for all they are worth – luxury and obsequiousness for those who can pay the premium; barely-concealed disdain and low-cost rubbish for everyone else. This is what we largely got, and it has reinforced social and wealth disparities as a result. Those who benefitted from the resultant massive social injustices were largely those with pre-existing wealth to invest in companies or property – in other words, that self-same establishment. The whole thing was one huge exercise in re-asserting elite establishment power at the expense of everyone else.

They tried to impose it on the continent too – the most fervent advocate of the Single Market was one Margaret Thatcher – but when it failed to dent European social capitalism, they lost interest, and finally took their moment to pull us out…

But the cat is out of the bag. Events of recent years have made the failings all but unignorable, and the level of social debate and disillusionment in the UK seems higher than ever. Even the Establishment’s precious Union is under threat, now that the Scots see the iniquity of the whole thing.

My own parents were no pillars of the Establishment; active socialists in their youth, yet ultimately, they never found the need to ask the profound questions about the nature of the country we lived in, that seem to be happening today. The self-interest of the elite is clearer than it has been for generations, likewise its real attitudes to the rest of us. The wealth disparities are unignorable; so is the physical and constitutional neglect of much of the country – its inability to cope with recent events all too obvious. That backward-looking clique may yet have sowed the seeds of its own destruction by failing to accommodate the needs and mood of a growing (and young) sector of the population.

What’s more, it can’t rely on insularity any more – those of us who have seen the reality of other countries know just how inappropriate the UK’s reality really is, and how much harm it does to the people here, who can’t see for themselves because they have never been allowed to.

When the educated sector of society no longer perceives its interest to lie in the status quo, time is often up for national elites. I feel more disorientated than ever about the place and the time where I have lived; it is hard to know what to believe when more and more of the Panglossian “truth” one grew up with is exposed as a sham. And the peak of this is the utterly British belief that “such things don’t happen here”. Well, maybe…

Those who have lived in Europe in the past 75 years have little to complain about when compared with the previous two millennia, let alone human experience across the wider world; such is the deception of modern comfort. And yet I cannot help but feel that this moment is significant, whether just in my own life or more widely – when the shackles finally fall from one’s eyes and the truth is revealed. Truth that suggests to me that this country needs to start again and rebuild from the ground up, as our neighbours did from the late ‘40s.

This country has had far too much of its fabled security and pragmatism; in tis complacency, it has failed to evolve as it needed to, and recent events have shown that to be an almost incontrovertible truth. It needs its own ZMOT (Zero Moment of Truth) from which something much better might emerge. Sadly, the renewed jingoism of the ruling class is hardly a cause for optimism; even less so, the willingness of a significant proportion of the nation to jump on board. But one thing has changed forever: I no longer believe the old myth, that this country is somehow a special, favoured, uniquely honourable place where truly bad things never happen. It might not make life more comfortable, but perhaps it is a necessary insight for the start of life’s upswing.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The great marshmallow test.

Walter Mischel first conducted the marshmallow test in 1972. Its significance lay in the correlation between the ability of children to delay their gratification for eating a marshmallow to wait for two later, and a range of later-life outcomes, ranging from career and relationship success to physical health.

I am currently reading a newly-published book, Chatter, by Ethan Kross, who turns out to be one of Mischel’s former students. His own research has been into the impact of people’s inner voices on their functioning, when they get out of control. This is a matter of interest to me after my own ‘adventures’ in mental health over the past few years, and more generally from my work as a teacher. Krall’s proposes that finding ways of mentally distancing oneself from difficulties and viewing them from a wider “zoomed-out” perspective, has the effect of diminishing their immediacy. It is what we do when we replace gut reaction with more objective understanding. It seems plausible.

I could not help myself from applying the idea to other contexts. My own humanities background has always made me interested in what makes places and peoples tick. As a geographer, I have always been fascinated by local behavioural distinctiveness, so I rather instinctively look at the social ‘health’ of whole nations from a similar perspective.

This train of thought was set rolling again recently by a finding that has found that serious drunkenness is significantly more prevalent in the U.K. than almost any other developed country. While there will no doubt be a range of views on the seriousness of this, I take the view that the need of a society to escape from itself may considered a sociopathology and an indicator of less than good societal health. The fact that many in the U.K. may not take this as seriously as I do is perhaps more of a symptom than a cure: no matter what one’s attitudes, the indisputable truth is that alcohol abuse causes multiple negative health outcomes, and that is without considering its wider social and economic costs, or the psychological forces that drive it. I find it easy to conclude that the perceived need of many people in this country to escape from reality quite possibly says something important about the quality of the lives they feel the need to escape from. Such things are not always apparent unless one has a reliable comparator, such as conditions in other countries. We are not talking about a little convivial tipsiness here – though the line between the two is less clear than I suspect many think…

My train of thought took me yet  further, to the ongoing criticisms of the British government for its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. While I have no wish to excuse possibly the worst bunch of national ‘leaders’ this country has had in generations, I do not think it is reasonable to pile all of the blame at their door. In a country of 68 million people, a handful of politicians can only do so much. Even in my own relatively kindly small community, I have repeatedly witnessed pandemic-related behaviours that I find hard to attribute to anything other than diminished responsibility on the part of their perpetrators.

What’s more, we are daily regaled with reports of the ‘damage’ that the current situation is doing to everything from the nation’s economy to wealth disparities to young people’s mental health. All the time, the tendency is to attribute this to governmental incompetence; what I see is buck-passing on an epic scale: just another sign of a society that was not in good general health even before the pandemic struck.

It struck me that the pandemic is in effect one huge marshmallow test. Whole societies are being asked to put their lives on hold in the biggest test of deferred gratification ever conducted – and just as with the children in the original survey, outcomes differ. It may not be stretching the point too far to suggest that those societies that have coped with the strictures comparatively well are in better collective health than those that have not; the implications for the UK (and perhaps the USA) are obvious.

If there is any substance to this, then we need to look for reasons why it may be so. I do not think they are hard to find: the report on drunkenness perhaps gives the game away. People in the UK subconsciously see routine, everyday life as something they need to escape from; this may speak volumes about those lives, the balance of hardships and rewards within them, the opportunities people feel they have – even the physical environments which they inhabit – all things repeatedly identified as social ills present in the U.K. It may say a great deal about the resultant social attitudes of those people with respect to their own ‘agency’, their sense of personal responsibility, and towards those who govern or otherwise constrain them.

The current problem is not hard to understand: a force of nature that is both highly infectious and quite widely lethal. While one should not disregard the functional conflicts that for instance force people into unsafe workplaces, there have still been very many acts that were arguably nothing more than wanton irresponsibility seen in the light of the Covid facts. They range from large, illicit gatherings to individual acts of low empathy that reflect a simple lack of self-control.

The opinion-pieces in the press bemoaning the loss of the social whirl; the reaction to the intended Christmas relaxation, and its subsequent cancelling – all reflect a reluctance to accept that we cannot do what we want – not what we need. Social contact is certainly important (for some) – but not if you are dead. And the key to surviving the pandemic lies above all in an inner resourcefulness and grit that seems never to have developed in many.

The whole point of learning to defer gratification is the ability to accept that life does not revolve around one’s own immediate urges; that one cannot always have what one wants just when one wants it, even for one’s own good. It means drawing on one’s inner resources to cope with this. This might have been considered an unremarkable point of adult maturity – but it seems that many people struggle with it. It is also a lynchpin for stable societies.

Underpinning deferred gratification is an inability to distance oneself from wider circumstances, particularly when they are adverse. And behind that, in turn, is a need to develop the mental resilience that comes from a fully mature mindset. Similar expressions of this can be found in Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s work on the nature of Flow: the finding that people flourish in conditions where they are challenged sufficiently but not excessively. Having an overly easy life takes you nowhere worthwhile, and leaves you lacking in resourcefulness when times get hard. The chart below explains this:

Part of Flow is recognising the necessity to defer gratification if significant fulfilment is ever to be achieved. This is why athletes and musicians amongst others discipline themselves to train so long and hard. It involves learning to accept short-term setbacks – and even the fact that “success” may never be guaranteed at all. It is also what traditional approaches to education were based on – the need to study long and hard in order to reach a higher state of rational understanding. Its pinnacle may perhaps be seen in the philosophy of the Stoics, which accepted that life can be tragic, and our best salvation lies in learning to accept that fact rather than rage against it. In effect, permanently deferred gratification.

This seems to be an insight that has escaped modern society at large – it is too busy throwing the toys of its indulged lifestyle out of its pram. How else can one understand people complaining about their lost social lives while so many are dying? The inner resourcefulness that might provide a coping mechanism is just not there; though easy, blaming it on others is not the answer.

 It is impossible to separate the various effects of the pandemic’s impact – but it seems to me that a lot of the problems being reported may well be not so much due to unavoidable hardship, but of people not being able to cope with the suspension of things they want rather than need to do. (I suspect those suffering real hardship are largely not shouting at all).

This explains everything from the huge numbers of people on beaches last summer, to the relish with which people surged out after previous lockdowns were eased, to the thousands of small indiscretions where people prove unwilling to alter what they want to do in the light of what they ought to do. No matter that the real risk (infection, as opposed to law-breaking) has not gone away.  It may be easy to pass blame to others, but this is nothing more than evading responsibility for that inability to defer gratification. Likewise, focussing on what is or is not allowed as opposed to what is medically prudent, is a displacement activity used to avoid the need to look at harder truths. To be fair, this does now seem to be sinking in – but did we really have to get to this point for it to do so?

Why has this affected some societies harder than others? I suspect the answer lies in many very long-term factors in the social climate of varying countries.

Much has been made of the stark contrast between the experiences of the UK and Japan, in the context that these two island societies are often quite good comparators. I suspect the reason for Japan’s better experience lies in its culture of scrupulous hygiene, its fabled rituals of social respect and its resultant willingness to comply. Its religious background is close to Buddhism, with associated philosophy of transcendence. These things are all quite different in the UK. The reasons for this lie too far back in this nation’s development to discuss in detail here – but the country’s trajectory over the past few decades has finally been shown to be the pernicious and socially-unhealthy one that it really is.

Prime amongst the culprits is the excessive commercialisation of society. The incursion of the profit motive into almost every aspect of British life has had unremarked impacts on the nation psyche. The often-gratuitous selling on which recreational consumption depends – relies on people doing anything but deferring their gratification. Advertising actively encourages people to yield to their every passing urge, and to do it immediately. It promotes a self-focused, first-person perspective on life, which Kross has correlated with increased risks and impacts of mental anguish. It encourages people not to think hard about what they are doing, or the longer-term consequences. Over time, this – coupled with the infantilising effect that it has on adult mentalities – has greatly damaged the nation’s ability to act defer its collective gratification. Anything that requires it appears a catastrophe in its own right.  The hysteria and outrage that accompany situations where demands are not met is evidence of the depth of the harm being done. The fact that some have started to reflect on their past behaviours is welcome – but is itself evidence that they were perhaps functioning on (commercially-driven) autopilot in the past. Whether new resolve will endure remains to be seen.

It may be argued that the impacts of rampant commerce are not restricted just to a few countries; this is true – but its perniciousness is not the same everywhere, as it interacts with wider social norms and attitudes. Even today, for example, many German shops close on Saturday afternoons, since shopping is simply not seen as the leisure activity that it is in the UK and the USA. It is a functional necessity, but it does not occupy a central place in people’s attention.

I suspect that another factor is the degree of cultural introversion or extroversion in different countries. Those that appear to value extroversion, such as the USA and increasingly the UK, may be finding the loss of interaction harder to cope with than those with more introverted cultures and a higher degree of self-reliance. These are, however, skills and outlooks that can be cultivated, given determination.

My own field of education might have been expected to be the main antidote to this problem. But it too has been re-cast in quasi-commercial terms in recent decades. This has not only affected the obvious marketisation of institutions, but also the culture within them. The emphasis on (marketised) results has narrowed what may be reasonably taught; the need for “consumer” satisfaction has reduced the risks taken by teachers, for example where work needs to be hard, and gratification deferred – in favour of making sessions “fun” – for which read instantly-accessible, undemanding trivia. The more challenging philosophical subjects have been marginalised in favour of those which deliver practical skills and employability – hardly unimportant, but we have created a workforce-society whose emphasis is on the purely functional, and which lacks the mental-philosophical insight or resolve to rise to demanding circumstances.

And above all, it lacks the ability to differentiate between that which might reasonably be blamed on an incompetent government and that which is the failure of individual personal responsibility. Known epidemiological fact suggests to me that it is the latter which has actually been the main reason for the severe impact of Covid in this country: we simply have created a society that lacks the resolve and ability to respond in the required way. We have emphasised personal indulgence at the expense of social cohesion and created a national infrastructure that was configured to operate along quasi-commercial principles and that cannot respond to the current circumstances. Anything that did not, was allowed to wither.

As with individual health, the wellbeing of societies is not a matter of personal opinion: there are behaviours that are more or less healthy, which promote greater or lesser long-term flourishing. The British have a primitive self-understanding in this respect – and attempting to normalise the symptoms, for example by having a light attitude for mass drunkenness, is an expression of the problem, not the solution.

The simple fact is, the British people have collectively proved unable to resist the ‘marshmallow’ even when the risk is widespread death. Some other nations did not. As in the original test, the longer-term consequences are widely significant.