Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

H.Q.

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Home. A baseline in the world. Perhaps the only place where we have anything like complete control of how that world is. And right now, what could be more important than that? When we are away from it, we describe places that strike a chord as “feeling like home”.

And yet, from much of what is being said at the present moment, home might as well be a prison. Spending time there is being portrayed as penitence, rather than pleasure. Many seem to be worried that spending time at home will send them up the wall. It should do the opposite. (I suspect that this is actually just the sound of the usual extroverts fearing what will happen if they are deprived of their social energy for a while).

It’s not like that for me. Much as though I love travelling, being out there in the buzz of modern life, there is nowhere I would ultimately rather be than home. It’s probably easier for an introvert – but never have I seen home as a prison.

I have spent a large proportion of the last four years at home – often alone. The mental health difficulties of 2016 and after meant that for quite a long time, I found it very difficult just to get beyond the front door. The loss of my career and related income meant that even after my difficulties abated, there was simply not the need to leave on a daily basis, nor the opportunity to do so, when it almost inevitably meant spending money that we didn’t have. So we fell back heavily on the things you can do at home.

Even now that I am working part-time again, in an environment where I can ‘spark’ off several thousand other people, I still look forward to coming home – to the place that is at once my restaurant, studio, café, spa, gallery, lounge, hotel, debating chamber, library, archive, concert hall, writing space, rehearsal room and workshop, all rolled into one. It is the defining backdrop of my, and our, life: the place where it has been possible to create a setting in which at least part of our lives can be lived on the stage of our choosing, rather than that of others.

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A good home should wrap around you like a second skin, it should envelop you and fit like a glove. It is both a haven from others, and a place where you allow them a little further into your inner life. It is also a creative space in its own right – where we can be amateur architects, play with space, materials, texture and light, to create something that is both nurturing and restorative – and at what point might such a thing be more needed than now?

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Perhaps I’m a little extreme (while I was unwell, I completed a diploma in interior design – it’s an interest that has always been there…). I’m aware that many others don’t seem to perceive, or feel about, their homes in this way. For quite a few, home seems to be solely a functional space, where they store worldly clobber and hang out when they can’t find anywhere better to go. Very often, this seems to be reflected in the attention (or lack of it) given to both aesthetics and organisation.

I’m tempted to wonder at the extent to which this is a wider cultural expression of a nation that perhaps lacks the creative spark of certain others, or which is inhibited from expressing itself by the near-universal British fear of social disapprobation. For rarely have I seen on the continent some of the utter shambles and aesthetic nightmares in which quite a few Britons seem to live. Pride in one’s home still seems socially acceptable there, without the accusation of social climbing.

A short while ago, the men who delivered a new appliance couldn’t resist showing me the pictures they had been required to take as evidence for their failure to install one in another house. I can’t begin to describe the appalling, insanitary horror displayed in those photos, apparently belonging to a “perfectly normal guy”, as they described him. What was happening there? Maybe deeply cerebral types simply don’t have enough spare head-space to pay attention to their surroundings – but I have always found the opposite: calming and comfortable surroundings are a great stimulus to creativity – simply because there are fewer jarring distractions.

I’m perhaps fortunate in that my “significant other” and I don’t have to deal with serious conflicts of taste or vision when it comes to what we want our home to be. It’s also been helpful that I am afflicted by neither macho hang-ups about being interested in home nor the less macho inability to realise and fix most things here myself. Our home is not prestigious: a two-bedroom apartment in an old school. It perhaps it is a little unconventional even for just being that; on occasions we have been gently ribbed for having produced a ‘show home’ – but it is not.

We happen to love a modern aesthetic that in this country (wrongly) seems associated with aspirational wealth. What we have done was entirely for our own private pleasure, no matter what others think – and it remains as calm when we are alone here as when we have visitors. Even a brief investigation of the origins of the modernist movement will show that it was founded in principles that were far-distant from the associations with affluence that it seems to have acquired.

It is true that we appreciate fine materials, design and workmanship. But it is a cultural error to correlate that with social one-upmanship. Such an appreciation does not always come with a high salary attached. It is certainly harder to achieve with more modest means – but it is possible precisely by paring back the aesthetic, reducing the amount of “stuff” one needs, and sinking one’s funds into a few signature pieces such as have lasted us for decades.

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Doing much oneself can help, too: in what was a shell when we bought it, I laid the wooden floor, and fitted out two bathrooms and a kitchen myself. The doing of it is often less daunting than the fear of trying.

Our home is also a form of philosophical self-expression – in our case the belief that Mies was right, and Less really is More. It is also an expression of our Europeanism: much of what is, and happens, here is a product of our exposure to the domestic and wider interior tastes of many countries. Back in the Nineties I was already doing this, having been utterly bowled over by the styles on show in France, Switzerland and Italy, where simple modernism has never been seen as the eccentricity it was until fairly recently in Britain.

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Inspiration in a Bernese showroom.

 

I still remember being stunned by the discovery of a boldly modern, kingfisher-blue Bulthaup kitchen installed in the Belle Epoque interior of the Chateau de Vidy in Lausanne, now part of the IOC headquarters and since refurbished again. I learned that there is more to homeliness than reproduction Victoriana or Georgian pastiche or ancient cottagey-ness.

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The current incarnation of the Chateau de Vidy, IOC headquarters, Lausanne.

For many years, I was my own personal importer of homewares from those countries, a situation that has now thankfully changed: another way in which this country has become unknowingly more European.

So for me, staying at home is no punishment. The modern home is equipped with everything needed to reach the world beyond, to allow it in on our own terms. It is the headquarters of our own lives. Our corporate selves might yearn for a beneficent call to visit HQ. But at home, the Chief Exec is us – and the HQ is ours, not theirs. What more could you want?

Might Now be a good time to pay renewed attention to your own headquarters?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Cannon fodder

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Now is hardly the time to be preoccupied by grumbles about the state of the nation. Emergencies such as the coronavirus should ideally see us setting aside our other differences and working for the common good. (I am very irritated by the email feeds that I subscribe to, which have continued to make political capital out of the situation).

However, it is also true that extreme circumstances often reveal stark realities about the way we live. Albert Camus used epidemic in his major work La Peste for precisely this purpose: the way in which various characters react in extremis speaks volumes about the real nature of the human condition.

On the one hand, locally there have been any number of small gestures of community-spirited kindness – while on the other, certain landlords elsewhere apparently intend to evict tenants who can’t pay their rent, come what may; this reflects a depressingly callous side of human nature. (Since I first drafted this, the government has said it will make such actions illegal – but the intent nonetheless remains…)

What is true of individuals is, it seems, also true of nations. The respective responses of various countries to a broadly common threat is quite revealing about the mindset of those who run them, not to say their general level of competence. To be fair, we should overlay on that the relative position of those countries in relation to the development of the pandemic. Those who were hit first can hardly be blamed for making mistakes that experience may allow others to avoid.

But it still informative to note the extent to which some nations have adopted a hawkish approach, while others have been towards the ‘dove’ end of the spectrum; this perhaps reflects varying perspectives on, and levels of compassion towards, humanity in general. And once again, Blighty seems to have been firmly in the hawkish camp. Boris Johnson’s early comments on national policy gave the impression that losses amongst the ‘ordinary ranks’ were to be considered acceptable, or at least unavoidable, collateral damage. Only later, when this was reported negatively, were slightly softer messages forthcoming.

His choice of words is also informative: he considers dealing with a virus to be a “war” in which we are all to be conscripts. It is not very different from the imagery he used for Brexit. It betrays a confrontational, winner-and-loser mentality that is of questionable utility – unless you happen to consider yourself a habitual winner, which Johnson of course does.

A salutary point, however, is that some of the countries that we have become accustomed to praising for their tolerance, progressiveness and democracy, have been quicker than the U.K. to impose conditions not too far removed from martial law. Likewise, Britain’s accursed island status has been thrown into sharp relief: on the one hand the arrival of the virus has shown the idiocy of believing that we really can pull up a drawbridge on the world – but on the other, it is perhaps true that with closed borders, islands and other remoter areas really are somewhat shielded from the risks of a wholesale pandemic that could more easily sweep across a continent.

Perhaps more important, though, is the vision with which a country is run. Are those others who have imposed draconian measures really doing so because of their underlying authoritarianism, or just a more realistic appraisal of what is in their people’s best interest? At least it appears that such policies are consistently and equally applied; I can’t help but wonder whether the gradualist British approach is designed to leave doors ajar for those who have the means to help themselves first…

I don’t subscribe to the view that the ruling class of this country is willfully neglectful of the rest of the nation. It’s more subtle than that – and Johnson is only the particularly buffoonish tip of a much larger establishment iceberg: one that is still raised to think in terms of social hierarchy, “natural orders” and its own self-evident preeminence. It can’t help it, any more than the rest of us can help having our basic assumptions – but it does have further-reaching consequences.

It is an attitude that propagates hawkishness, that makes it easy to consider the ‘ranks’ as lesser human beings, which in turn justifies in its own mind a hierarchical approach to how people are treated even in times of emergency. The key thing (just as it was in national nuclear-strike strategy) is to protect those who are ‘pivotal’  to the perpetuation of the existing order – who just happen, of course, largely to belong to one particular socio-economic stratum. Is this just the privileged protecting themselves again – or (given that many such people are senior decision-makers) a necessary strategy for continued societal functioning? It perhaps shows that in the minds of such people, the continued existence of the British State is more important in itself than that of the majority of the individuals who comprise it: an attitude that is a hangover of Empire if ever there was one.

This mindset is doing significant and increasing damage to the fabric of British society. It can be summed up as Entitlement. From their earliest days, those who are born into this segment of society is taught to assume as a ‘given’ that their destiny is assured – and that that destiny is one of privilege.

By means of accent, lineage, connections, high-paid employment, inherited wealth and education, they continue to sequester the best that this nation has to offer for their own kind, before the hoi polloi has a chance even to get near it.  Their crowning achievement is to have persuaded the rest that this is indeed a natural order, in which the principle function of the lower orders is to fall on their swords when necessary in order to perpetuate the good life for those at the top. This is why it shows so little concern for the impact of adverse events on the population at large: it really does consider those other lives to be of lesser value than its own.

It is an intractable problem. As one such person said to me some time ago: “There is so little you can do with the plebs. They are so hopeless, so basic, and with such low expectations that you really can’t consider them to be much more than cannon-fodder”.

Sadly, there is an element of truth in this. Having been working again with young people, it is all too evident that significant numbers come from backgrounds, and have expectations, that are very likely perpetuate poor-quality lives. It is extremely difficult to raise these young people’s expectations, or to persuade them that there are alternative trajectories for their lives to the ones that, by their late teens, they already seem locked into. Pointing out that there are others having very different experiences seems to do little good: they have already bought into the mindset that certain things are “not for the likes of me”. Such attitudes become an unwitting collaborator in keeping the so-called elite where it believes it belongs – and experience suggests that they really are a particularly extreme handicap in British society compared with elsewhere in Europe.

Yet when one is faced with the reality of the such starkly contrasting lives, it becomes quite easy to understand Holly Martins’ view in The Third Man, that most humans are little different from ants, whose ceasing to exist would make almost no difference. Except that its exploitation could help bulwark the higher orders further.

But it is wrong.

It is wrong in a way whose understanding of why is perhaps beyond those whose entire existence is predicated on their belief in their own preeminence. To begin with, you have to un-learn that ingrained assumption that some humans are naturally superior to others. I don’t believe that Johnson and his ilk spend their everyday lives consciously thinking and acting on this – but it is so utterly impregnated in their very existence that they probably can’t help themselves. It doesn’t help that they live and work in a bubble that thrives on such groupthink. Everything about their lives insulates them from the rest of society. This is probably why Johnson seems so little troubled by the criticism radiating from large parts of the rest of society: he simply doesn’t see that the same rules need apply to his type, nor that he need be troubled by their outrage. Part of his privilege is to be able to behave as he pleases, and answer to no one. And after all, the nation has just elected him by a landslide, hasn’t it?

But once you have un-learned the superiority complex of the ruling classes, one thing becomes apparent: it is not that everyone is important – but that in the face of a pandemic, no one is. And once you have accepted that, it becomes very much easier to understand why egalitarianism really is the only logical response – making sure that everyone has the best stab at this life that they can, for there are still so many things about this life that we cannot control that we really do need to optimise those that we can.

The hierarchy that still bedevils every facet of this country, even down to its pandemic management, fails to understand one thing: it is not a survivor of the brutishness of so much of national life, so much as its source. Those (supposedly) lower British orders need not be any coarser than they are in other countries; what makes them so is their knowing lack of opportunity and access to the more elevating aspects of life. And this has primarily been caused by the hoarding tendencies of those with the means to do so: the higher orders are not the refugees from baseness that they seem to believe: they are its cause.

In Italy, residents of the big apartment blocks have responded to their incarceration by singing on their balconies; in Britain, the media seems to be responding to a similar scenario by reminding the nation how much television there is to watch. This is the extent to which such disparities in everyday life-opportunity infiltrate national psyches. I have had to work hard to persuade my teenage students that there is plenty they could do to stop themselves getting bored in the coming months. But they are mostly not that resourceful; British society encourages them to be otherwise.

Life today is in many ways far removed from Hobbes’ view of it as “nasty, brutish – and short”. But we still have far to go – and it is perhaps it is during extreme times, whether Brexit or the pandemic that this is exposed. Some people are starting to describe these things as a wake-up call. Perhaps the test of this theory will be whether those who increasingly run the show use it to bulwark their own positions, or finally to wake up to another reality. After all, the really essential workers at times like this are the ones doing the most basic but essential work – and maybe we need reminding of that fact.

Perhaps the most likely eventuality is that the present economic model – which (with education) is the prime mechanism for perpetuating privilege – may simply fail to cope with this emergency; the fact that Johnson has already hinted at a universal basic income and eviction controls may be a sign that realities are being faced that might otherwise not have been.

On the face of it, a virus does not discriminate between people according to their wealth or social status – but the ability (and willingness) of the elites to protect themselves at others’ expense will no doubt – as Camus pointed out – speak volumes.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

The topographical geometry of a big little island.

Geography still suffers from an image problem. It has never had glamorous TV presenters or highbrow authors to make its case as has, for example, history. And yet, as one of the few books to buck the trend shows, History is the prisoner of Geography. What happens in places is, fundamentally, dictated by the spatial configurations of those places.

For better or worse, Brexit has prompted an increased focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the UK – something that I felt had largely been put to bed by the early 1990s as free market economics (and in my view the Single Market) provided at least the veneer of a much more successful country. As I worried at the time, it was merely papering over cracks that have been cruelly exposed again in the last fifteen years.

And yet we seem not to learn the lessons of Geography. British people widely seem to have almost as little real appreciation of the lump of rock they inhabit in the eastern Atlantic, as they do of the continent next door. At present, this is particularly apparent in the discussions about regional disparities and the role that new transport infrastructure may have in addressing it. Yet even the politicians seem not to have noticed that history is littered with initiatives to solve this particular problem, as though it is nothing more than a slight political oversight, rather than the more enduring forces of geography that they are dealing with.

So here is a brief explanation.

  1. The British Isles are not “an” island – nor just two – but about 6000 – of which about 130 are inhabited.
  2. Many of those islands are highly indented in shape. Great Britain alone has a coastline of around 17,800km (setting aside the controversy about how this is calculated). It has an area of just under 210,000 km². The Hausdoff Dimension for the island is a high 1.25 – in other words, there are lots of separate, sticky-out bits into the sea, on the way to nowhere.
  3. This means that useful distances between places are often a lot longer than they appear. For example, Pembroke to Penzance is 175km as the crow flies, but 500km in human travel terms. From my home, Dover is about 90km away in a straight line but double that by the shortest road. In practical terms, this means that regional economies that in a country of a more consolidated shape would be able to interact, are often barely able to.
  4. In addition, Britain’s position on the margin of a vast ocean means that there are few reasons to go to, let alone beyond those outlying places in order, for example,  to reach other countries. Italy suffers from a similar peninsularity problem, but at least one can head to the Balkans or North Africa from the extreme south. There are very few places to go from northern Scotland. So they remain culs de sac.
  5. As a result, many of Britain’s regions are remote, underpopulated and underdeveloped – for example, the further south-west, west Wales, and progressively, the whole of the north.
  6. The shape of the island naturally dictates that routes from the extremes all converge in south east England. London is not where it is by accident.
  7. While the country’s topography is not as challenging as say Italy’s, when combined with the indentation, it still presents problems. Those radial routes manage to cross lowland England without too many problems – but they are then divided from each other by ranges like the Pennines and the Welsh uplands. This makes travel to London easy, but cross-country travel much more difficult. There is only one proper East-West motorway between the M4 (London to Bristol) and M8 in Scotland.
  8. Equally, linear geographies make the emergence of parallel routes more difficult – there is nothing approaching the ‘net’ of motorways seen in Germany and Benelux, thus focusing traffic – and hence congestion – on a few routes. See the maps below (though note that some British dual carriageways not shown would almost be considered motorways on the continent). There is still no direct continuous dual carriageway between the English and Scottish capitals, nor along the south coast.
  9. The same shape only gives rise to one major non-London axis, from south-west to north-east – but this was historically neglected by transport companies that were much more interested in serving London. It also has to dodge or cross many of those ridges of upland.
  10. Recent history has not helped either: when Britain was the world’s workshop, it was as easy to dock a ship at Bristol, Liverpool or Glasgow as London. This was aided by the fact that the hinterlands of those cities produced goods (cotton, wool, steel) for which wet, hilly terrain was a positive advantage when it came power sources and raw materials. Nowadays, such areas are perhaps less attractive. In many ways, the population distribution of the UK is a relic of 150 years ago. If you were planning a new city today, you would probably not choose Glasgow or even Newcastle as the location. The large populations of northern England and central Scotland are marooned in places which in geographical terms have little competitive advantage – and lots of disadvantages.
  11. The increasing links between the UK and the continent have placed the regions at an ever greater disadvantage. Any trade or travel between them and the continent encounters the London region as a major blockage, in both practical and economic terms. And coming the other way, too much investment gets as far as London – but no further.
  12. This has not been helped by policies that have privileged the London region at the expense of the rest. In simple terms, the UK has focused development in the most favoured areas and abandoned the outlying ones. Many countries would use infrastructure to do exactly the opposite. But regional services through the Channel Tunnel never got off the ground – cancelled due to low predicted demand – even though there was equally low demand for train services from London to Paris before the tunnel opened. Quite apart from the practical impact, the effects on provincial perceptions of ‘Europe’ would have been great.

A lot of current discussion centres on, for example, whether the country needs High Speed Two – or whether the money would be better spent linking the northern cities. This is to miss the point: we need both. The fact that the cost is now so enormous is the result of decades of failure to address the problem. We are half a century behind the French, for example, in building high speed rail lines.

Too often, they are still seen as discrete projects, rather than as an integrated network. It seems to have been too much to expect High Speeds One (to the Tunnel) and Two (to the north) to be linked together, for instance. It was also too much to expect Crossrail to be linked into HS1, or to be used to provide regional services from East to West across southern England, rather than a simple commuter shuttle for London.

High Speed Three (Liverpool to Hull) makes most sense if it is linked into HS2 in Manchester and Leeds – it is the overall connectivity that is important, and would make the projects both more cost-effective and user-friendly. It would also reduce the risk of HS2 simply sucking more growth into London. And the option of building it from Plymouth to Edinburgh to link almost all regional centres to provide a counter-balance to London seems never even to have been considered – despite the fact that that route could have been built with money saved from expensive construction in the London area.

An imaginative private sector proposal to link HS 1 and 2 via Heathrow and Gatwick has apparently been rejected even before the drawing board (too many Tory seats in the way?)

All of these things are entirely within the ability of this country to solve – or would have been, had they not been neglected for so long that the cost is now enormous. The real problem has been a lack of understanding or foresight – of the benefits of joined-up thinking in particular. And that is perhaps the most British failing of all.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

After the storm.

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After the storm came the calm. The passage of 31st January 2020 was always going to be difficult – and so it proved, despite my best efforts to ignore it. But it was also a non-event as most of the country remained quiet.

The following morning, I woke to a strange sense of relief – I guess a natural reaction to the knowledge that an unpleasant ‘peak’ was finally past. But that in turn is giving way to a more sombre mood, as the reality of what came to pass sinks in – assisted by the first depressing indications from the government about what it intends next.

For me, the shock of Brexit was compounded by the fact that this is the dénouement of something I have striven for not for three, but more than thirty years – ever since I first visited the European Parliament in 1989, and my already-nascent Europeanism crystallised into something more specific. But all those years of battling widespread indifference, when Europeanism was seen in the UK, if at all, as an eccentric minority concern, seem finally to have ended in rejection.

For this reason, too, it has seemed all the more cruel that I have had simultaneously to contend with several years of poor mental health (thankfully also largely past), which made every surge and slump of hope that much more acute.

But we must rise above. I made myself quite unpopular at times by questioning both the motives and methods of some of those campaigning for remain. I am unrepentant – because I know that the insight that comes from self-scrutiny is an essential part of understanding. And from understanding comes greater effectiveness.

I still worry that the irrationality, even hysteria, that was seen in some quarters of the remain camp, was an expression not of resilience, but the lack of it. I have found my own greatest reserves in the knowledge that membership of the European Union is not the same as being European. The latter is an entirely personal matter of perspectives, values and choices, that cannot be taken away by mere political changes. It took thirty years to grow, and I have my doubts that it can be ‘acquired’ in three. 

I fear that the extreme emphasis placed by some on the technical and political losses of Brexit only betrayed the void that lay behind. Clinging to the technical minutiae was in fact an expression of the insecurity of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, not its strength. For many in the UK, membership of the EU was perhaps their only apparent means of European expression. It is not. The objection to things that were being taken away was perhaps indicative of the lack of appreciation – or ‘ownership’ – of those things that cannot be taken away.

I don’t for a moment blame anyone for that – the climate in this country for five decades has done nothing whatsoever to encourage people to think otherwise. But in a sense, the remain movement was nonetheless an expression not of the solidarity of British Europeanism, but the opposite: something already barely within reach that was now being taken away. My reason for pointing this out was simply to alert people to that possibility. It seemed to have escaped notice that some of the sentiments being expressed in the name of “Europe” were diametrically opposed to what that ideal supposedly stands for. The fact that I fell on deaf, even hostile ears only confirmed my fears.

But that is why it was ultimately futile: over 47 years, Europeanism utterly failed to resonate in any cultural sense for the vast majority of people in Britain, such that Brexit would represent the ripping away of anything at all. By contrast, the Leave camp was able to appeal to precisely that “gut” instinct of its latent support base, that they were regaining something of value.

Grieving is a necessary and important process. It brings catharsis, and ultimately acceptance. But even in its depths, our rational selves can still recognise it for what it is. I’m not convinced that utterly abandoning ourselves inconsolably to it is ultimately helpful. We might at least accept that grief is capable of hugely distorting our world view – and save important decisions and declarations for a time when we are more rational again.

This is why I think it is essential that we pro-Europeans to take a hard look at ourselves, as soon as we each feel capable of doing so. I think it is why we should be cautious about knee-jerk reactions, such as those “rejoin” demonstrations that have already taken place. They could do a lot more harm than good at the moment. Discretion needs to be the better part of valour.

Now is precisely the moment when those rational selves need to reassert themselves, painful though that may feel; nobody said this was going to be easy. We must all rise above. After all, profiling of pro-Europeans suggests that they are more likely to be highly-educated and with a forward-looking, progressive view of the world. If we neglect the advantages that this confers, then we really will need to abandon all hope. The backward-looking traditionalists will have won.

So what is to be done? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Focus on the personal aspects of Europeanism that are solely within the individual’s control. Ask yourself hard questions about what it actually rests on for you. Is it simply the desire to go through the fast lanes at passport control, or it is an integral part of your daily life? How familiar are you with the reality of the rest of Europe – or is it just a holiday destination? Are you a role model for what Europeanism means? How many languages do you speak? (This above all is something we need to address). In what ways has wider European culture shaped your own day-to-day life? Do you follow European affairs as a matter of course? When you conceive of where you live, which map comes to mind (the British one, or the European one)? What choices and values do you live by – and what are you transmitting to your children and those around you? How many genuine friends do you have in other countries? (If none, can this be fostered?) Europeanism is ultimately about horizons and perspectives – our own.
  2. Accept that on the one hand there is little to be done about the current national situation – but on the other, that it is not set in stone forever. In five years’ time, there will be another election, and a subsequent government will not necessarily pursue the same hard-line policies as the current one. We need to do everything possible to ensure that a change of regime is achieved.
  3. Look at the domestic situation. Many of the flaws in this country that led to Brexit were not caused by it. We need to maintain the pressure for electoral reform, for regional rebalancing, for less inequality, and for awareness-building amongst a wider public, about the merits of ongoing Europeanism (not just EU membership). If the current government assists by addressing some of the regional issues, then we should give credit where it is due – and recognise that they are actually helping to reduce dissatisfaction with the state of this country. Regional aid is, after all, a European approach. That can help us – and it may well be that the actual trajectory of the country will do so too, should the economy and social provision plummet further.
  4. Realise that we are not immune to human weakness. Perhaps the greatest current threat is simply that the passage of time will blunt pro-Europeanism, as people become acclimatised to a new reality: the acceptance that grief eventually brings. There is no point in dismissing that possibility at present: it is simply too soon to tell. A harsh reality is that acute events tend to mobilise people to action, but their removal can have an equally rapid dissipating effect – and the peak moment in the anti-Brexit mobilisation is now past. No one can be sure exactly how much will be left of the remain movement two years from now – and anyone suggesting the contrary is claiming things that are simply not knowable.
  5. Accept that reconciliation will be necessary. That means give as well as take. It is probably true that views are now so polarised that a whole segment of the British population is beyond reach. But remember too, in your shame and frustration, that we are not the only European nation to have such people. We still have at least to tolerate them: I am not convinced that the condescension and condemnation that flowed towards them helped the Remain cause one iota. It just embedded a lot of their prejudices. In order to reverse Brexit at some point, we will need to convince those who are not currently strong Europeans. Demographics are on our side – as may be coming events. We need to take every opportunity to demonstrate what has been lost – and how it can be regained. The first thing to do is to tackle the very thing that never took root in the first place: the shifts necessary in the national mindset to bring real European understanding to this country in a way that, had it existed, would never have allowed the Brexiters to rip it away. Until that genuine love of Europe is embedded in our national psyche, then no political campaign is likely to succeed.

This is not a matter of national politics; it a matter of the personal choices of every person in the country. It may not make much progress for a long time – but it can begin now.

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Sea birds on the Essex mudflats on Bidet. Tomorrow they might be on the Rhine estuary. Brexit means nothing to them.

 

Opinion & Thought

A bird in the hand…

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Research has shown (regrettably I can’t find the source) that people value things they already have roughly twice as much as those they don’t. Groups of students were given the opportunity to purchase a mug, while other groups were given one free; some of the latter showed indifference to the gift. In both cases, they were later asked to part with the mug. Those who were asked to give it away widely refused, while those who were given the opportunity to sell it priced it at about double what the students had been prepared to pay for it in the first place.

The experiment shows the effect of Loss Aversion. It is human nature to guard things that we have acquired, since they may be useful to our survival: a basic instinct. In short, people make a lot more noise over losing something, than over something they never had in the first place.

It is also an instinct that seems to be widely distorting accurate assessments of where people’s best interests and real preferences actually lie. Obsessive hoarders are perhaps an extreme example of this – the inability ever to jettison anything eventually causes everyday functioning to be choked by vast piles of junk.

It operates at more consequential levels too. The county where I live was proposing a major cull of public library provision. There was a predictable outcry, which led to thousands going on marches, signing petitions and celebrities getting involved. It made national headlines. My local library was threatened, and local people were in the vanguard of the protests, vociferous about how important it is to have a local library.

Even as a non-library user, I supported the campaigns, because I genuinely believe that civic facilities are important, and disproportionately so for the less advantaged. The County Council responded with figures that showed a rapid decline in library use. (They were not all they seemed – not least because the decline correlated with cut-backs in library opening hours, and because of the particular measures they had chosen to use).

The Council eventually backed down – at least for the time being. In the aftermath of the campaign, there was a marked increase in library patronage. But recent anecdotal evidence suggests that this may have subsided, and we are heading back towards previous levels – which will only equip the County Council with further evidence to revisit the issue in due course.

We might call this the Radio Three Effect: there was a similar outcry to proposals for a radical overhaul of the highbrow classical music radio channel some years ago – by far more people than actually listen to it. With many items of cultural capital, people like to know they are there, even when they never use them; the loss of such things is a bigger issue than their practical benefit.

The problem with this comes when assessments need to be made about sustaining such institutions, particularly the funds they consume, which might arguably be better-used than maintaining largely-empty civic icons. There is, of course, the argument that says such things need to be provided so that they are there when people do need them (which I support) – but it is hard to sustain when overall usage levels remain low.

A wider problem with the bean-counting approach was exemplified by the Beeching Cuts to the railways (the closure of which routes was also vociferously opposed at the time – by people who often drove to the protests in their cars): by continually paring away things that appear not to pay their way when seen in isolation, we undermine the viability of services that more generally do.

I don’t wish to give the impression that I approve of the blinkered bean-counting approach to social and cultural assets. But it is nonetheless hard to present a reasoned argument against it when the case for such things is based on hypocrisy. It seems to me that the real problem is the duality between what we say we value – and what we actually do, as measured by things we really patronise. This – regrettably – is what a free-market philosophy is based on. And the problem behind that is a society that seems to be changing and evolving in ways that we are not happy with but seem powerless to alter, even when it comes to adjusting our own behaviour.

The logical conclusion of the popular-patronage approach to what is valuable is that we would end up with a nation full of large shopping centres, sports stadia, a few iconic museums and galleries – and not much else. Is that what we want? Maybe not – but it is certainly how we behave.

The same argument can be extended to almost all aspects of life: the means of transport we are prepared to use, and even the extent to which we are really prepared to change our behaviour in the face of the environmental emergency.

What’s more, I am expecting much of the outcry about Brexit to subside in the next year or two. At present, we are in the stage of defiant proclamation that after our loss we will change, that we will be faithful Europeans from now on and evermore, that we will return. This is not to dismiss the very real pain of those who genuinely appreciate and practise Europeanism, but what, for instance,  are the views of the 95% of remain voters who do not appear on the social media groups? What is one to think of those who apparently never even thought about Europeanism before it was to be taken away, let alone stood up to advocate or defend it? Time after time when I quite genuinely ask people what the significance of Europeanism is for their own particular lives, almost always I get silence, a non-answer, the usual platitudes about the principle of the thing (not unimportant – but see the foregoing argument) – or a change of the subject. Very few seem willing or able to expound on the subject: why is this, when they are supposedly so passionate about it?

I am left with the regrettable conclusion that many don’t know – or that the answer is nil. In many cases, I’ve also been left with the sad sense that real knowledge and insight is lacking, even amongst vociferous remainers. (In my own case, I am entirely conscious of Europe’s impact: this blog forms part of the evidence of that. I can also claim three decades of advocacy of the EU, even when it was deeply unpopular.)

Very reluctantly, I am coming to the conclusion that for quite a large proportion of those who object to Brexit, it may be little more about  a severe national outbreak of Loss Aversion,  than the deep, personal significance of Europeanism. The pattern of behaviour fits. Britons abroad constitute no more than a few percent of the population; for many still in the UK, Brexit will make few specifically-attributable differences, beyond fewer, more expensive European goods in the shops and more bureaucracy when going to the continent on holiday.

If that is the case, then the years and years of changed behaviour that keeping the European flame alive in this country will entail, will simply be too big an ask for many. The passionate outpourings of the past three years will then mean little more than similar ones against other closures of things that most people never use.

I hope I’m wrong – but only time will tell.

You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Backward to the future – How English!

Englishness – final part: solutions.

The images below show residential quarters of three small British towns. It is possible to identify where they were taken?

LMCOHE

The first image comes from northern Scotland, not far from Inverness; the second from southern East Anglia, and the third from East Devon. The straight-line distance between the first and the other two is about 460 miles each, while the second and third are about 200 miles apart.

But in many ways, they could almost be parts of the same place. Apart from some climate-related differences, there is really little to separate them – and in a way, I believe this is a profound expression of the identity crisis within Britain, England in particular.

As I discussed previously, Englishness is an elusive concept. While the Scots, Welsh and Irish have, if anything strengthened the celebrations of their national days in recent years, St George’s Day remains a Cinderella – or an embarrassment. There are many reasons for this, and the British are not the only nation to fight shy of such overt patriotism – but as anyone who has experienced national days in France or even reserved Switzerland will know, they can have a powerful impact on people’s sense of identity and ‘belonging’. People celebrate them because they choose to, not because they’re told to.

The purpose of the three images is to illustrate how little regard we have in this country for regional differences. It is true that the pictures were intentionally selected to show this; the more historic parts of the three towns do look rather different. But given how important ‘home’ is to people’s sense of identity, it is perhaps concerning that for a hundred years or more, we have increasingly expunged localness from people’s dwelling-places. And what we have replaced it with largely lacks character of any sort at all.

We don’t seem to be making much headway either: while more recent builds sometimes incorporate nods to local vernacular, they are rarely little more than stick-on additions to developers’ standard products. And the quality is so poor! The build and environment of the average British residential area more closely resembles what I have seen in some former eastern-bloc countries than most of our western European neighbours.

Such things might not seem the most obvious place to start when addressing a crisis of national identity – but a moment’s thought might show that the places where people live – where they most closely identify with – might be precisely the place to start. If we are to address this perceived deficiency, then no amount of flag-waving ceremonial can achieve the same impact as attending to the basics of ordinary ‘lived lives’.

We need to address the fact that the traditional nation-state may no longer be the most appropriate model for identity-loyalty. In fact, it may never have been. Prior to the nineteenth century, most communities had a much more local sense of themselves; before the coming of the railways, neither time nor currency was fully standardised.

What happened since may be seen as “progress”, but there is no guarantee that people’s fundamental psychological needs have kept up – particularly for those who have least access horizon-broadening education and travel, and the ability to benefit from it. (Even where I live, a mere 45 miles from London, there are still people who see those from the next village, three miles away, as ‘other’; it is easily done…)

The nation-state is arguably the product of a past era, whose purpose was not to serve its citizens, but to compete externally with other nation-states. To that end, it was necessary to construct a common sense of purpose and commitment within the population-workforce. That was particularly effectively done in the UK due to its hierarchical social structures, strong ruling class and the state’s longevity. History speaks for itself.

But the fact that we have these top-down national structures is no guarantee of the depth to which they really penetrate into people’s real identities. Identity is primarily a matter of personal experience; it is not really something that can be commanded. In the modern era, a more widely educated population has started to see nationalism for the construct that it is; groups of all kinds are demanding the right to define their own identities.

At a more local level, nationwide policies have eroded the local distinctiveness that perhaps resonates more fully with people in terms of their personal identity. The fact that one is almost obliged live in bland, identical houses the length of this nation – ones that show no respect whatsoever to the physical or cultural environments in which they are situated – can be seen as an important expression of that erasure.

A significant defining difference between the UK and much of the rest of Europe was the experience of 1939-45. The nations currently with the most stable social settlements seem largely to be those which were forced to re-build from the ground up in the post-war period. They had every incentive to create structures and mindsets that would not lead them back to their past – including the EU; they seem to have very largely succeeded.

In the UK, by comparison, the experience of “winning” the War led to the further entrenching of dated attitudes and structures that have become increasingly unfit for modern purpose. One of those was the enduring strength of the centralised nation-state. Other countries that tended in a similar way, for example France and Italy, have increasingly been forced to acknowledge that regionalism is necessary to accommodate popular demand.

But in the UK, the trend has been in precisely the opposite direction. There was no incentive to do otherwise while the nation’s entire structure was predicated on social hierarchy and the preservation of the elite classes. One of the reasons that the houses in those photographs are so dismal is that the living conditions of the “ordinary people” have simply not been seen as sufficiently important in the corridors of power for anyone to do much about it.

The same could be said for almost any aspect of this nation; this has led to the gross socioeconomic polarisation that we see today – and which in turn undoubtedly fed the disaffection that ironically caused much of the population to turn against an EU whose nearer member-states arguably represent models that could help us to solve some of these problems. It certainly applied to education – the want of which (in an intellectual as opposed to functional sense) also fed Brexit because much of the population was neither sufficiently engaged nor equipped to make the complex decision with which it was presented.

So it may be that we need to go “backward to the future”. The crisis in identity is in large part based in the fact that the one we already have was built for an earlier era, one where authoritarian imposition was sufficient to make people “buy in”. That identity – and almost all of the cultural icons that came to represent it – were based overwhelmingly on class hierarchy rather than anything more universal. The elite called all the shots; the middle tried to conform – and the rest were left to define themselves with the scant pickings that were left. It was based on competition for privilege, and top-down control, rather than genuine collaboration in a shared identity.

This mindset is still far more dominant in the British psyche today than many realise. Almost all aspects of British society and culture still hinge on social signalling and competitiveness, rather than any common sense of identity (the only sharing is within our internal tribes). What we eat, wear, inhabit or drive are more signals of social status than anything else. Any glance through the Sunday supplements will reveal endless role-models for status-seeking. All that has changed – if anything – is that money and material goods have come to assume a more visible aspect of that labelling, while ephemeral cultural goods such as art, literature and civic duty have declined.

In the process, people’s more instinctive identities, focused on much smaller areas, were overridden. The construction of identikit mass housing the length of the nation from the nineteenth century on was just one particularly visible example – superficially unifying, but only in an impoverished sense – and to an identity that they did not necessarily embrace.

In general, the concerns of government have not been the practical emancipation of the general populace. The Right has increasingly bulwarked the existing hierarchy, while the Left has mostly sought to replace one elite with another. What is really needed is for the concept of social elitism to be dispensed with altogether. This might seem naively idealistic – yet it is my repeated and persistent impression that social competition and exclusivity is simply a much less significant feature of society in places such as The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. It is not that they reject it: they don’t need to. It barely even figures. An acquaintance who moved to France with relatively little knowledge of that country recently observed to me how much more genuinely egalitarian it is than the UK – and despite the glorious revolution, France is hardly the best example. The need to climb the ladder is inversely proportional to conditions at its foot; it is those that have never been paid sufficient attention to in Britain.

By removing competitive elitism, the matter of individual and group identities can shift to being something more genuinely universal and inclusive. This is why, I believe, we get such as strong sense of collective culture and ‘identity’ when we visit countries where that is the case: their cultural capital of all sorts – both high and low – is not fragmented by class, but is “owned” by a much wider section of the populace. Food, art, fashion, décor, music and more are simply less obviously a matter of monopolisation by a small elite. That is not to say it doesn’t exist – think BCBG signalling in Paris for example – but it is not particularly socially-exclusive to go to the opera in Italy – because opera is “owned” by nearly everyone. Even in the world of fashion, designer clothing is more often sold on its quality and style; less-often on its “exclusivity”. Scandinavian countries, of course, take equality several stages further. And as a result, you also rarely see the inverse-snobbery of bling and chavism where extreme (or inverted) social climbing attempts to misappropriate things perceived to be outside its natural territory.

So the key to curing England’s identity crisis is, ironically to do “less England”. Given that so much of its traditional identity is saturated with the issues discussed above, we need to find a different basis on which to build. The most obvious thing to use is regionalism. Everyone has to live somewhere, and without recourse to gated communities, places are difficult to make exclusive. Places are generally things experienced (“cognitively owned”) by all. It could be made a lot more so if land ownership were not so overwhelmingly private… In effect, we need to break England up into its constituent regions – not only in an administrative and economic sense – but in a cultural one too – and give them to their people.

Baden-Württemberg in Germany is a land about 150 miles by 100; Bavaria is somewhat larger at about 200 by 150. But both are not radically different in size from the standard economic regions which already exist in Britain. (Scotland by area may already be too large as a single unit). The difference with länder in Germany, cantons in Switzerland, regions in Italy and France is that those all have a cultural and geographic identity as opposed to a purely administrative one, as is the low-key British norm. It is not a panacea: there are internal tensions, for example, between Baden and Württemberg and between Swiss cantons (not to mention the Belgian provinces…) – but it is also interesting that there was significant outcry in France at the recent re-consolidation of smaller-sized regions into larger blocs.

The question is how to do this – but the answer is not as difficult as it might seem; again we can take ideas from other countries. Those standard regions – or something like them – need to be explicitly identified and named in the public consciousness in a way that they currently are not. They need to be given their own regional governments and state capitals. They need to be given flags, signage – and perhaps even anthems. They need to have the power to vary local laws and taxes; to exert control over matters like planning and environmental protection. They need to be able to champion their distinctiveness in matters such as food, history, accents, customs, landscape, economy, architecture and transport. This last is significant: a way of binding a region is through creating the perception of regional integration. It works on the railways in some areas, such as Scotrail and Greater Anglia – but they need to strengthen the regional emphasis. These regions need to be given meaningful budgets in order to promote these things. They then need to send representatives to London.

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East Anglia’s flag

It would all feel rather artificial at first, of course. There would no doubt be huge scepticism. But a concerted programme of gentle, benign state-building over a period of decades would start to change this – assisted by the generational churn. And over time, I believe people would start to acquire meaningful identities based on places rather than social status. Rivalries would probably emerge – as to some extent already exist – but that would probably be a good thing, so long as they were gentle. Existing identities in some parts of the country could be used as a basis – but they would need to shift from the rather defensive semi-defiance of today into something more wholly positive.
As this became established, people would start to feel pride and security in those identities; they would “own” the iconography that went with them in a more authentic, less defensive way than now – and they might hopefully perceive those who chose to migrate to their regions as welcome arrivals in a shared enterprise that was strong enough to assimilate them.

In the long run, I think this would also shift British perceptions of the rest of Europe too – not only because that is where many of those migrants might come from – but because we would feel that we could engage with the rest on a much more equal, proactive footing. It is worth noting that German länder retain direct representation at the EU in Brussels. On the fourth flag pole, along with the regional national and union flag, could fly the gold-stars-on-blue: something else that has never routinely happened in this country. At that stage, we might finally be ready to re-join.

But whether a nation that seems so culturally atrophied at all levels that it is terrified of voting for any change at all will ever manage to enact this, is a question of an entirely different magnitude.

 

Opinion & Thought

Old leather, polished wood – and sunbeds

poolside-05-St-Regis-Punta-Mita-cr-courtesy

Englishness – part three

The Germans, by reputation, excel at obtaining the best sun-loungers in Mediterranean resort hotels. The British (and perhaps others) excel at grumbling about it.

I have no idea whether the reputation is deserved, as I never take that kind of holiday (and therefore probably never rub up against that kind of German…).

Popular repute also has it that this speaks volumes about the kind of people that the Germans are – while eliciting certain, rather unflattering adjectives. I hasten to add, that this is nothing whatsoever like my experience of that nation – which may of course also speak volumes about the places that I choose to frequent.

The cultural telescope, however, has two ends. For all that we use such anecdotes to illustrate our impressions (and prejudices), such stories can say as much about us as ‘them’. I wonder how (if at all) healthy-and-efficient, early-to-rise Germans perceive the laggardly and perhaps-disorganised British in the race for sun-beds.

Such perceptions of the Germans amongst the British seem fairly common – and yet when one examines the outcomes of our two approaches, in the way our respective nations and societies function, I wonder who the joke is really on. It is visible in all sorts of ways – for example in the fact that German Railways have just reduced their fares to encourage sustainable travel – on the same day that British rail companies yet again raised theirs. That, to me, speaks volumes.

It is impossible to know how culturally-representative these two examples really are, of two nations that total some 160 million people between them. And that is without trying to factor in all the comparisons that might be made with all the other nations of Europe.

We cannot but have a tiny, selective impression of the culture and identity of a whole nation. We should remember that our minds selectively edit what they see according to our preconceptions. We also need to remember that the base-lines in such comparisons are rarely consistent: my Swiss friend Alfred regularly complains about the traffic congestion in Basel. I can only conclude that he has never fully experienced British roads at rush hour. Maybe I have just been very lucky in Basel – but I doubt it.

In another way, the shortcomings of our ability to see such things accurately don’t matter. Identity is, ultimately, entirely a matter of perception – and if our imaginations construct certain images, then for all intents and purposes that is what is true. Which is not to say that it is unwise to remind ourselves regularly that we may be romanticising what we (think we) are seeing. Our mind-picture can only ever be partial.

The big problem arises when we try to compare cultures about which we have different ‘resolutions’ of knowledge. While it is probably reasonable for a Briton to make comparisons between, say France and Germany based on an equal, outsider’s view of both – the real problems arise when we are trying to assess our own culture. As I suggested previously, from the “inside” – as we can only be with our own culture – things can appear very different indeed. Perhaps is it simply impossible ever to step far enough away from our own culture to be able to see it as others do? It can only be all the more difficult if one fails to appreciate that cultural judgements are only ever relative – they appear differently depending on which end of the telescope you are looking through – so trying to conclude that one is in any way “better” than the other is probably doomed to failure. “Preferable” might, however, be possible.

Perhaps the only way of doing this is to examine the physical manifestations of those cultures in terms of the way each nation operates, the values it upholds, and the success with which it appears to achieve and sustain them. Always remembering that even ‘desirables’ such as equality or social stability can be seen in more than one light… But when it comes to sunbeds, it still seems that the German way is more successful than the British.

The starting premise of this piece was the suggestion in The New Statesman, that English culture is in crisis because it lacks a clear and positive sense of itself. It occurred to me that this may also be why there is a strong inclination among some Britons to admire cultures other than our own: ones that appear to offer strong, positive identities that we cannot find nearer to home. As I said, even if those identities are imaginary, at one level that doesn’t matter, so long as they provide the observer with what they are looking for.

That certainly resonated with me, as an explanation for many of my personal choices and actions, even down to the identity of this blog, whose name and underpinning purpose is the search for aspects of a “well-lived life” that I feel are at best elusive in general lived experience in the UK. What bothers me is why those “feel-good” moments happen much less frequently in my home country than they seem to elsewhere.

The obvious starting point for this has to be that familiarity breeds contempt; that we simply cannot appreciate our own cultures in the way we do others’ because “that is how normal life is” – and we tend to respond more to the exceptional and defining. If this is true, then the same should be true everywhere – but that, by definition, is not something I can easily judge.

What I can see is that those external expressions of other nation’s culture often seem to align with my own aspirations far more frequently elsewhere, than in England. The fact is, I find much of English culture to be insipid, confused, aesthetically illiterate, and dominated by social signalling and matters of class and status. It is for this reason that I find it difficult to identify with the culture that is supposed to be my own.

Perhaps the strongest icons of English culture – those that seem to figure most frequently in the minds of the non-British, are nearly all associated with the traditional upper classes. Be it sartorial style, interior décor, foodstuffs, motor cars, table-manners, social convention, matters of personal deportment and more, most of the “so English” things are all the preserve of a small, exclusive section of English society, to which I do not belong – and do not want to.

While the old leather, polished wood and tweed does have a certain aesthetic appeal, it is almost impossible to dissociate it from its aristocratic connotations. It is also inherently traditionalist, fuddy-duddy, backward-looking and socially-repressive in ways that I do not wish to associate with. What’s more, despite a certain “richness” it is also often aesthetically illiterate, as the violent clashes of colour and pattern of traditional English menswear show. It glories in its contrived eccentricity, fake under-statement – and a lasting, starchy attachment to its military origins that I find most off-putting. In the final reckoning, English style is a uniform, a social statement of conformity and individual repression, rather than a form of personal expression. It also rejoices in its lack of aesthetic coherence, the bumbling aristocrat personified in cloth and hide.

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The alternatives are scarce. While few of us actually live in the kinds of mansions that the foregoing might suggest, the values of that social stratum have extended into almost all other expressions of Englishness. Perceptions of English countryside almost all descend from the idealised aristocratic ideas of what is delightful. Those who aspired to social advancement (itself an antisocial concept) felt the need to assume that aesthetic and other values. Hence we have vast swathes of suburbia whose identikit Tudorbethan is widely furnished with pale imitations of ‘traditional’ “good taste” which derive directly from the stately home. Social mores were likewise dominated by aristocratic rules of acceptability – thus we have amost infinite gradations of cringingly genteel Margo Leadbetter-like middle class ‘taste’ whose main cultural benchmark appears to be that which will confer social acceptability with those a rung or two up the ladder – if only in the imagination. It is another expression of Englishness that I find utterly repulsive.

The only other alternative appears to be what was left for those without the means or hope of acquiring such faux-gentility. There are “working classes” everywhere, of course – but I detect in other countries less of the exclusion from wider cultural capital that exists in England. The logic is clear: when the higher echelons of society have so completely corned all of the best for themselves, the only thing left is to define oneself in opposition to that – by actively disowning the cultural capital of higher arts and culture, and revelling in a crude, brutal and utterly utilitarian persona which is all that is left of the national identity once the aristos have finished with it. It is all the easier when the higher orders treat you badly in the first place: the only thing you can really do to retain any sense of autonomy is to show them your arse.

And that is what much of non-faux-genteel English identity resolutely does. It is a form of inverted class-snobbery that revels in the crude, the anarchic and repugnant, the unimaginative and the crushingly routine. Positive La Bonne Vie artfulness is something utterly absent from ordinary English life. Much of what it is now fashionable as “gritty authenticity” is, to my eyes simply rough. When does ‘down-to-earth’ become ‘boring’ or crude? That may seem grossly condescending, but it is still true that many of those who could escape such cultural environments took their first chance and never went back.

Even though (perhaps because?) my own roots are in the working class of a couple of generations ago, I find the studied crudeness of English tribal mass-culture to be no more appealing than the aristocratic type. If you happen not to like Corrie, Footie and beer, it is just as excluding. It is, in any case increasingly false: a factory-processed replica of itself, spewed back by huge commercial and media interests in plastic, Anglo-American form at “the masses” who supposedly aren’t able to cope with anything more.

There seems to be little in the middle. For a while, I had hopes of the English food revival – but it turned out to be just another form of gentrification, the main effect of which (as anywhere) is to destroy authenticity. Gentrification takes mundane, authentic cultural capital and turns it into exclusive delicacies for the new elites, who in reality crave little more than the respectability (rebranded as Cool) of their stodgy antecedents. It mostly appeals to the chattering classes, whose magpie-like predilection for cosmopolitan cultural novelty, I suppose I might appear to ape. But novelty is the last thing I want. Continuity is more like it: the enduring, solid cultural icons and institutions that one can go back to over a span of decades, that give our own identities roots. (It is possible to do that without atrophy). The preciousness of gentrification seems to so-alienate so many that it removes any claim it might have to be a genuine national identity.

The irony about both sides of English culture is that they are two sides of the same coin. Both are backward-looking, fundamentally nostalgic for things that perhaps never really existed. Both are more about signalling what they think they are – or want to be – than anything more genuine. Whether it is social climbing or studied roughness, it is all about pretence rather than honesty: probably the inevitable outcome of a society so heavily predicated for so long on a strong social hierarchy.

In that sense they are no more a real identity than my apparent idealisation of continental cultures. They both rely on people knowing their place, rather than finding their own in the way that Sprezzatura implies. They are now both cardboard cut-outs whose purpose is not to create a sense of heimat-like belonging, but to assign people their place in the social pecking order. I think their inherent superficiality invokes a sense of emptiness that leaves people feeling as though they lack something deep.

To invoke “The English People” is nothing like invoking the German Volk or even French Citoyens. Such English culture as still exists is a revivalist, sanitised caricature. When people encounter the guts of real, old English tradition, they find it lumpen and crude, and are often repelled – which is why in England folk traditions are a thing of mockery, unlike in Scotland or Ireland, for example. And what most people think if as “folk” is actually a form of soft, acoustic pop: a sanitised modern expression of cultural longing that can’t actually cope with the ancient reality of what it longs for.

And so, I am left failing to find anything meaningful in English culture that does not in one way or another repel me. I am left with the only option of constructing my own identity from what I see and value elsewhere. There is no reason why, over time, cultural acquisitions cannot assume a level of authenticity – though they will never feel ‘native’ within the course of a single lifetime.

A confected and ridiculous position, perhaps – but one which, if the “crisis of Englishness” is correct, a lot of other people perhaps feel too. And while they do, it will only increase their sensitivity to what they perceive as unwelcome incursions.

This was intended to be a three-part item. However, there remains the issue of whether the Englishness deficit can be addressed. One more installment to follow…

 

Opinion & Thought, Travel

Travel confuses the mind.

panettone

Musings of a cultural magpie, part 2.

They say that travel broadens the mind. Sometimes, I think it just confuses it.
Over the years, I have been a house-guest of perhaps half a dozen French people, sometimes for a week or more at a stretch. I have visited the homes of a good many others, not to mention some of their schools and workplaces – and have hosted a similar number in return.

Hardly a representative sample of a populous nation, of course, but perhaps rather more than average for a Brit. It’s hardly surprising that those people were all quite different in both personalities and life-styles, just as individuals are anywhere – and yet my dominant memory of them, collectively, is their overwhelming Frenchness.

I had similar experiences in Germany, with the added complication of being nowhere near as competent a German-speaker as a French. Luckily, my hosts all spoke good English, and the same is true of Switzerland, where I have the most enduring friendships. Once the language issue is minimised, you can progress.

I recall the timidity with which I first made such connections, something that has fortunately lessened over the years. While this was doubtlessly partly a matter of personality, I suspect that neither is it an unusual experience. Anxieties perhaps hinge most obviously on language and food, tinged with a less-focused fear of making an unintended faux-pas. At a deeper level again, I was aware of a self-imposed sense of being an “ambassador” for my country. It ought to be possible for people just to be people, no matter where they come from!

But for all that the British may carry the extra baggage of their self-perceived ‘apartness’, I doubt that such anxieties are a one-way affair; indeed the comments and behaviours of those who have stayed with me suggested as much. To some extent, it is a simple matter of unfamiliarity.

What this perhaps betrays is the fact that national identities still matter; that despite several decades of intensifying integration between the nations of Europe, we have yet to cast off those national characters and become some kind of bland, homogenous Euro-citizen, the kind of thing of Eurosceptics’ worst nightmares.

I think the cultural dissonance that we experience on such occasions is entirely natural, and nothing to be ashamed of, even if it makes sense to try to overcome it. In fact, it is just as possible to experience similar feelings in an unfamiliar part of one’s own country, or with people whom one does not know well. All the nationality issue does is raise pre-existing stakes somewhat. Yet despite that, when travelling around one’s own country one is not, I think, struck firstly by its homogeneity. From the ‘inside’, such things are taken for granted, one notices subtle differences more quickly – and it takes something exceptionally symbolic to prompt the “so English” response. I’m pretty sure that the same phenomenon applies elsewhere: we just take our own cultures for granted.

Yet our tendency to “other” people is more difficult to overcome than we like to think. There is evidence to suggest that it is a natural survival instinct, and such things are not easily over-ridden: it takes a great deal of work to remove all illiberal thoughts. Even though I am entirely comfortable in the countries that I mentioned earlier, and despite the fact that I know some places and people in those countries better than plenty in my own, it can still be difficult to get beyond that first-level sense of ‘otherness’, even when it is a wholly positive experience.

I still tend to think of Swiss friends, French friends, German friends – not just friends; I expect it is reciprocal. In recent years, I have made progress in this respect. Some of my Swiss friends, in particular, are now so familiar that the nationality issue has (almost) disappeared, and I just think of them as discrete individuals like any other – until they say or do something that re-emphasises their otherness… Can it ever disappear completely?

But it has taken a lot of years and shared experience to get to that point. With people I know less well, it is less easy to do; again, I suggest this is quite normal, and not only an international problem. (I sometimes wonder what lies behind the public bonhomie of EU leaders’ meetings: do they really share so much that the national differences are secondary?)

The same is true of places: those that I return to year in year out have eventually become just places (almost) like any other where I spend part of my life. When we are in Basel, it is almost impossible not to flit between three countries just in order to function. Our friends live within about ten minutes’ drive of both France and Germany; their son went to school in ‘another’ country; they own a second home in Germany – about a hour’s drive away. Eventually, you start forgetting which country you are in – certainly between Germany and Switzerland; France is a little more ‘different’ – and that difference therefore perhaps intrudes more. (I wonder, though if that is true for the Swiss and Germans too: I don’t think I would ever mistake Scotland or Ireland for England, for all that we share so much…)

I suppose it would be possible to criticise all of the forgoing quite heavily. It could be a purely personal difficulty, that many people don’t experience at all. But I somehow doubt it: my feelings are born from many years of deliberately confronting the issue. I remember just how (needlessly) intimidating my early trips to other countries were – and I can see the journey I have travelled. Much evidence suggests that the bulk of the British population, at least, is still in the starting blocks. I don’t think an annual foreign holiday comes anywhere near adequately addressing it: you have to access local people and places for a start – and you have to keep going back.

I suppose that it could even be seen as a form of racism: the confession of a limited mind that can’t escape its own constraints. Perhaps – but it is not for the want of trying. It is born of decades of experience – and I suspect that anyone who claims it isn’t remotely that difficult really hasn’t thought about it very deeply. The more I understand these issues, the more complex and intractable they can seem…

Where does this leave us in terms of our own national identity? I ended part one by saying that I don’t like much of what I see of my own nation’s modern identity. I find little there that I wish to “own” – which is why I have gone looking elsewhere for something that is meaningful to me.

Yet I suspect that we can’t ever fully escape the culture into which we were born. Emigrating to another country might be a valiant attempt – but the extent to which one can ever really become someone else is doubtful. Despite citizenship tests, taking another nationality is fundamentally a legal and financial matter; I doubt if that act alone ever really changes one’s mindset very much. I suspect that people who live abroad are ultimately destined to be perpetual outsiders, perhaps eventually in their native lands too. They risk becoming – dare I say – “citizens of nowhere”. Perhaps that is why many are so sensitive about the label ‘ex-pat’?

So, much as I love my perceptions of certain other countries, I remain highly suspicious that they are anything more than romantic stereotypes, born of one’s inescapable tendency to generalise. Neither am I convinced that fleeing a country in which I feel almost as much a foreigner as anywhere else, would actually solve anything. The daily routines might change; familiarity would definitely increase – but would that experience destroy precisely what I appreciate about those places as an outsider? Would greater familiarity just breed contempt of what I previously admired?

There is, however, no law that says one should only be influenced by one’s birth-nation, no matter how nationalists might want it that way. People have been inspired by what they encountered abroad for centuries: it was the whole raison d’être of the Grand Tour. Somewhere along the way, we can cross a rubicon from infatuation to genuine adoption. Part of that no doubt involves getting past infatuation and moving onto marriage. By doing that we both remove “foreignness” and simultaneously make ourselves a little more cosmopolitan. Now that panettone, for example, is eaten throughout Europe, is it now less Italian – or are those doing the eating a little more Italian? (And what happens when we Brits do what we always do and adulterate it, or turn it into bread-and-butter pudding?)

I think one thing is certain: this is neither a quick nor easy process: extending one’s cultural horizons beyond one’s national ones can set up all sorts of conflicts. Maybe this is, too, what the much-derided “Little Englanders” are afraid of. Perhaps it is all the worse because of the relative weakness of their home culture?

Facing it can be a challenging proposition – but especially so for those who rarely venture (in their heads, if not their bodies) beyond their own little island.

(Final part to follow)

Opinion & Thought

The wood and the trees of an English Christmas.

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Taking a crisp Christmas evening turn around the small, ancient town where we live, my thoughts returned to something I had read a few days before. Quite a few of the houses were in darkness, but in others, still-open curtains allowed glimpses into timber-framed rooms where formal tables were set, or the remnants of the Christmas lunch lingered. Children lounged on sofas, engrossed with digital devices, while candles flickered in inglenook fireplaces, occasional hints of adult laughter somewhere out of sight. If anywhere, then surely this is where the heart of the nation is to be found, and on this of all nights, in this most turbulent of years? Was this much-needed evidence of a nation at ease with itself?

I’ve never paid very much attention to the repeated suggestions from a number of commentators that there is a crisis of English identity. Not because I necessarily disagree with the premise, but because (despite my roots) English identity simply didn’t interest me very much. I’m not sure what it is, for a start. For all that one gets a certain impression in a small, relatively affluent town in the liminal lands where the Home Counties merge into East Anglia, I was all too aware that it is hardly universal.

At the precise same moment as I was walking, there were rather different scenes being enacted within a matter of tens, or at most a few hundred miles, all of which exert their own claim to the national identity. The mean and glossy streets of the capital are a mere 45 miles away – where both international oligarchs and destitute homeless continue their proximate but parallel lives. I was aware, too, of places I know in the midlands and north, that still feel dour and abandoned decades after the last heavy industry closed. I know of the bed-sit land of faded seaside resorts, the remaining fishers and farmers scraping a living from the northern hills and harbours, and I know about the drug and knife-crime – and the bland, cloned suburbs – of the big towns and cities where nine in ten Britons now live. I wondered what significance a “national identity” could possibly have.

What’s more, I’ve long set my sights further afield: I know communities in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and more, which somehow always seem more appealing, more characterful, more vibrant, and more cared-for. I’ve been to autumnal and Christmas festivities in countries where such things seem to have an intensity, warmth and authenticity that make English efforts look watery and half-hearted. These images, too, are particularly potent in December, not least because their traditions have gradually infiltrated ours, to the point that it isn’t clear any more what ‘English’ actually is.

It’s been a long-term process of course. Much of the English Christmas is a Victorian confection, with a hefty chunk of German import, courtesy of Victoria’s husband. More recently, we’ve added German Christmas markets and stollen, Italian panettone, and Scandinavian hygge. Ironic, really, when you know that much of the community has just voted to cut itself off from Europeanism. And there has, of course, been a hefty and brash dose of Americanism, too.

The thing about Christmas, of course, is tradition: precisely that to which one might turn in search of a nation’s true identity. But once again, I am faced with not knowing what to make of it. A few weeks ago, my town also had a “traditional” Christmas market of its own, an enjoyable community event that happens every year – but dominated by loud pop music and flashing lights. On Christmas Eve, we had carols around the town tree; a good few hundred turned up, but few seemed willing or able to sing very well, and most seemed more interested in the arrival of Santa Claus to the strains of Wizzard’s I Wish it could Be Christmas Every Day. Well, I suppose it has become a tradition of a sort – but it is, for my money, hardly the stuff of national identity, at least not one I would want to identify with.

It is telling that there have been several complaints this year, that the relatively recent import that are Christmas markets is rapidly being turned into just another fest of cheap commercial tat at odds with the experience abroad. That is certainly my experience: every second-rate garden centre now has a few sad kiosks that it brands “Christmas Market” on huge plastic banners along the adjacent trunk roads. Somewhere, something – quite a lot in fact – is being lost. Not only can we not maintain our own genuine traditions, but it seems that we can only debase the imported ones too.

I find it all genuinely saddening. It’s not that I’m humbug. I love the festive season: it is the one time of the year when tradition almost gets the better of my modernist tastes – but it also seems to me to be the time when our lack of authentic English culture – and its replacement with a cheap plastic version that comes pre-assembled and microwave-ready, is at its most blatant and repulsive.

Yet the article cast a rather different light on this. It struck home where others have not, because it argued that Englishness is in crisis precisely because it has, for too many for too long, been defined by the absence of something. To feel English is to feel the loss of something that other cultures still seem to have. To be English is to be not-Scottish, -Irish or -Welsh: to be part of the majority-hordes of these islands for whom an authentic identity is not allowed. For many, it seems it is also be emphatically not-European.

It has only been amplified by the resurgence of Scottish, Irish and Welsh identities with the United Kingdom, and it is indeed very easy to feel that England is missing out on something. This was something I could identify with: in most of my experiences of my supposedly own culture I repeatedly get an uneasy sense that it is fake, or at best contrived. It is perhaps why my own need for identity has sent me looking elsewhere. For all that the English think they are a tradition-loving nation par excellence, the supposed tradition with which they seem to identify is a plastic confection of commercialism, sentimentality and low-brow popular entertainment. In fact, when presented with the earthiness of real, ancient English pagan-derived tradition, most recoil in horror.

The “traditional” English Christmas seems to me to be a sickly confection of middlebrow convention lashed together roughly between the years of 1850 and 1950, whose main purpose is to boost commerce. And like everything in this country, it is heavily class-based. The ideal Christmas descends from notions of quasi-Victorian middle-classness – and for those who can’t muster the considerable means now needed to do that properly, there is a synthetic, plastic version on offer, which was until some years ago characterised by Noel Edmonds’ facile jollity and loud pullovers on the BBC.

What perhaps hit home hardest about the article was its suggestion that those, like me, whose Europeanism has been such an important part of our lives – soon to be torn away – are in fact simply experiencing a different manifestation of the same difficulty.

In identifying closely with other countries and their cultures, we are, it suggested seeking a surrogate for our own lack of identity. It is a suggestion that resonated strongly. Why is it that we admire the Christmas traditions of Germany, Italy, Scandinavia – and yet somehow little of our own makes much of an impact? Why is it that we seek the cuisines, lifestyles, durables, furnishing and fashions of elsewhere? Why is it that English offerings seem pale and insubstantial by comparison? Even within the British context, I find much more to attract me in the Scottish and Irish identities, an experience compounded by an inexplicable fascination I have had with the landscapes, places and traditional music of those cultures since childhood. Could it be that even as a child I somehow latched onto places that could provide something that was missing from my bland English non-identity?

The more one thinks about the issue of identity, the more perplexing it becomes – not least because I have a large suspicion that it is like looking for trees and barely seeing even a wood: when one is ‘inside’ a culture, it is simply not visible. The icons, habits and thoughts that comprise it are simply the stuff of everyday life, so familiar that they seem devoid of the distinctiveness that one perceives when looking in on someone else’s culture from the outside.

In a way, that is rather sad: it means that the only cultures we can ever truly appreciate are ones that are not our own. I must say, though, that other cultures I have experienced seem fully aware of their own cultural selves, and revel in them to a degree that the English would probably find embarrassing. In another, it might offer reassurance that English culture is not as non-existent as it might seem. Perhaps we are simply looking too hard for something that is, by definition, too innate to see. Those digital devices, plastic decorations, fake traditions, loud music and louder pullovers are English culture. The trouble is, I just don’t like it.

(to be continued)

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Tech made sexy…

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A regular reader – it seems there are such creatures lurking out there – observed that there hasn’t been much “living well” (as in the strap-line), here for a while. (“Too much heavy politics”…)

I pointed out that living life well is not always the same as “the good life”. Epicureans don’t have a monopoly: it is possible to be a Sceptic, or even a Stoic and still “live life well”. All depends on your expectations…

In recent times, the situation in my home country has been such that trying to live well has indeed involved a significant degree of political and cultural soul-searching. But that’s all part of it: I’m not convinced that living in cossetted but mindless luxury really is “living well” in any case. Trying to face life’s tribulations in a reflective, intelligent manner is surely part of it too.

Even though my interpretation of sprezzatura goes well beyond the original, I would argue that beneath the apparently effortless elegance of a certain way in which some Italian men dress lies rather more thought and even soul-searching, not to mention a willingness to subvert the norms, than is at first apparent. In other words, it means being original and authentic, taking the best of convention, but to bending it to your own authentic self. All I’m doing is taking that idea beyond clothing…

But it’s true, we shouldn’t neglect the more material aspects of life. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that.

Which is all a rather long preamble to a deliberately trivial post.

Microsoft is ceasing security support for Windows 7 in January next year; despite several attempts, my old machine resolutely refused to install the free upgrades to Windows 10 that were offered earlier this year – and so the only alternative gradually narrowed down to the purchase of a new machine. Despite some concerns over the sustainability of such a move purely on software grounds, this has now been done. I need a desktop computer because I undertake quite a lot of design work for my published articles and personal interests, which is much less easily done on a portable device. But I don’t see why even a relatively functional activity like using a computer shouldn’t make its own contribution to a generally well-lived life.

The purchase prompted a major re-organisation and repaint of the multipurpose room where I do my work. Computer design has advanced in huge steps in recent years, no doubt driven by Apple, but now extending to more affordable machines like the excellent all-in-one HP model just purchased.

I first used computers in the early 1980’s, and even then, I thought that the techie guys had missed a trick when it came to wrapping their amazing goodies in something better than a boring black box. Here’s a reminder of the way we were:

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Forty years on, and they finally seem to have realised that for many people, awesome microprocessors aren’t enough…

There’s no doubt that writing in a light, bright environment on an aesthetically pleasing device is materially a vastly better experience, particularly in these short, dark, dog-days of the year. It  has more than repaid the effort (and expenditure) required. Sometimes, progress is real.