Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Sartoria

The cultural politics of socks.

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Trying to escape the big political battles for the soul of Britain for a while, I retreated into the delights of small things. Remembering that God is in the Details, I decided to sample the products of The London Sock Company. I came across it – yes – through its social media advertising, which dangled an enticingly eggy-saffrony yellow pair of its eponymous product.

A quick scan of the comments on said post revealed a large dose of British male incredulity that anyone in their right mind would pay in the £10-£20 range for a pair of socks. But having sampled the wonders of Bresciani from Mes Chausettes Rouges and Loding’s and Boggi’s own brands (for which you pay considerably less on the continent than here), I have come round to the opinion that a decent housing for one’s feet is an investment that pays day-long returns, if only because the wider range of sizes on offer than in chain-stores means fewer sags, slips and holed toes.

I regret to say the ultra-fine offerings from those Italian and French companies didn’t stand up well to the day-to-day demands of a British man for whom ‘stocking’ his wardrobe with one-wear-only quantities of such refinement is beyond his budget. (I do note, however, that Mes Chaussettes Rouges is now stocking an ‘extra-durable’ range, so maybe I wasn’t the only one…)

A pair of the bright yellows was duly ordered, and arrived impressively quickly, enclosed in a recyclable card envelope and nicely presented in tissue paper, with the further insert that gives quality new socks their pleasing scrunch – even if not the little cloth draw-bag that MCR despatches in. Who said this is just about something as mundane as keeping your trotters warm?

While they are largely made of the same fine fil d’ecosse cotton as the Italian products, LSC’s range mostly have some synthetic content in the heel and toe, which is probably sensible. And attract favourable comments, they did.

A couple of more orders have followed, including some nice ‘dusk blues’ the Bordeaux jacquard shown below.

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And yet, on reading the blurb on the company’s website, it struck me that even here I can’t escape the reach of politics. Brexit may even stretch to our feet: as previously mentioned, LSC uses the same materials and manufacturing as its Italian and French inspiration: surely a clear case of European cultural diffusion. It is, however, manufacturing in Portugal, which I assume is considerably cheaper than Italy. How will the price and availability of the product be affected by Brexit, let alone the fortunes of the small company that took the risk?

I’ve also just finished reading Harry Mount’s 2012 book How England Made the English. He takes a more sympathetic view of these islands and their inhabitants than I tend to – but even he acknowledges that, in general, the British lag behind many of their neighbours when it comes to the finer things in life.

Intriguingly, he (sort of) attributes our failure to appreciate fine socks to our not having been invaded for so long. Property, he says, is such a safe investment in a very secure country that people have traditionally sunk large portions of their income into it, which in turn left them with less to spend on life’s enjoyable fripperies:

“Because [the continentals] aren’t spending all their money on their houses, they have higher disposable incomes. They have tended to rent more, and to spend more on themselves and the bella figura – the sort of spending that the badly dressed, self-denying, puritanical English have historically looked down on as self-indulgent…and so England ends up as a world leader in chain retail shops, specialising in selling, amongst other things, cheap clothes – another reason we don’t look as good as our continental cousins.”

Recent contact with a Brexiter with whom I occasionally converse gravitated towards a similar topic, but drew forth the view that “We can produce everything we need here”. He was referring food rather than socks – but the principle is the same.

Although we haven’t been remotely self-sufficient in food for decades, I suppose in theory we could become so again – but would you really want the kind of beef-and-potato diet that would result? (Even British wheat is pretty marginal when it comes to bread-making). Personally I would rather head in the opposite direction and enhance further the range of other delights we have on offer. True, we have good dairy – and presumably some of the new-found artisan products would endure – but would this country really want to do without the vast array of foods we can now choose from? While I have found a couple of decent mozzarella makers in the U.K. we still don’t do a good line on our own buffalo milk, nor apricots, oranges, peaches or even tomatoes. Let alone pineapples, coffee – or cotton.

So it occurred to me, while reading that book and talking to that uncomprehending man, that I suppose my tastes have become so thoroughly Europeanised (we also resisted the lure of a huge mortgage, and live in an apartment) that giving them up would be – while possible – a significant dent in the quality of life that Brexit is supposedly going to enhance.  “It’s about freedom!” cried my interlocutor; “By depriving me of mine?” I replied.

While the freedom to buy Illy coffee and fancy socks may not be about to solve world peace, they nonetheless can bring a little colour to the life even of an Englishman, in the way that the old insular ways did not. And it’s certainly much-needed in the current political climate. One could even argue that the cultural convergence that they represent is a force for international good: despite my preferences, I just don’t see myself as a “Citizen of Nowhere”, in fact quite the opposite.

But even in one’s choice of footwear, it seems, politics intrudes.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why I think the education system is to blame for our pathetic politicians.

It seems to be a rare point of national consensus that our politicians are failing us, even if we disagree on how. It might seem very unfair to criticise people who put themselves forward for the thankless task of trying to keep everyone on-side in a disparate nation of sixty-plus million individuals, but my views on this have changed, and I suspect many other people’s have too.

In the past, I accepted the notion that those in charge generally had the best interests of the nation at heart, even when I profoundly disagreed with their chosen means of delivering them. I am no longer sure that that is the case: we seem to have a generation of politicians who are rather too torn between doing their democratic job, and preserving the considerable personal benefits that derive from doing that within the British political system; it should not be a dilemma. That interpretation may well be excessively charitable: much of the impasse over Brexit and all that has followed seems clearly driven by personal and party interests, rather than those of the nation. That is hardly news – commentators all across the nation are saying as much.

I tend to exclude from this the dilemma facing those MPs whose personal inclinations over Brexit are in conflict with the way their constituencies voted on the matter, though even here, it is very possible that the resultant paralysis has as much to do with self-interest as anything else. I also can’t resist mentioning that I have yet to hear of a pro-Brexit MP who is beating themselves up because they represent a pro-remain constituency…

Be all that as it may, it may seem excessively harsh to blame the situation on the poor, unsuspecting education system – yet this has not prevented many people from attributing much of the country’s predicament to the failure to educate people properly. As a former teacher, I am hesitant at accepting such sweeping accusations, and yet having thought about it more, I am afraid I conclude that education does have responsibility here, if not in the direct way that those critics perhaps think.

First, the bit where I disagree: Brexit and the resultant attitudes are not the result of a failure to teach compulsory European Studies. At school age, such subjects largely go over people’s heads; I taught the subject at ‘A’ Level, and even then it was hard to make it resonate with many students. (In the end, I took them to Strasbourg, and sat them in the Parliament for a day. After that, their attitudes had markedly changed – but we cannot do that for all children.) Steering national attitudes is a much more subtle, gradual and difficult thing than that, in any case – even assuming it is a legitimate thing to attempt.

No, the failure of education is more profound than that – and also, I believe less properly-understood. A constant battle in my teaching career was my advocacy of “learning for learning’s sake”, against a considerable and powerful majority who saw it in much more instrumental terms – a confected process by which children were made to jump hoops that eventually might result in their getting a decent job, which by no coincidence happened also to provide cheap childcare for their parents, while delivering good career outcomes for teachers and their schools. One almost got the impression that any real cognitive development that happened along the way was little more than a fortunate side-effect.

But learning for learning’s sake is not the ivory-tower ideal that is often portrayed. It is through learning without ulterior motive that one’s intellectual powers are best developed, free from the distractions of how they might need to be ‘useful’. It is the only way in which learning can be the truly impartial process that comes close to the real meaning of the word ‘academic’.

What is more, it is only through such a process that the really important aspect of education can be maximised, namely its residue. It is what Einstein meant when he said “Education is what is left when one has forgotten everything he learned in school”. The message remains right: the really important thing about education is not the cramming of facts, the learning of skills, nor even the certificates one gains or the income it eventually delivers – and certainly not the league-table position it delivers to the school – but the state of mind it creates.

It is this that the education system has increasingly neglected. Such abstracts were perceived as meaningless against the seemingly more tangible matters of exam results, employability, let alone school league tables. As education increasingly became little more than the training in hoop-jumping that such exigencies required, something of profound value was lost – to the point that we now have entire generations that not only lack such a perspective but don’t even know that they do. Finishing my school education in the early 1980s, I consider that I myself caught little more than the tail-end of the earlier perspective.

When education is shorn of its higher ideas, it does indeed become little more than training: it produces people who, while they may be highly skilled in specific fields, lack – sometimes to a worrying degree – a larger perspective on the world. They also often lack qualities like patience, impartiality or empathy. Everything is focused on self-realisation. The general population’s role in the current political emergency comes from its propensity for woolly, self-referential thinking, restricted knowledge, egocentric perspectives, impatience with diverse points of view and a failure to accept that it doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. Those who become teachers then often perpetuate their own experience of mechanical teaching simply because they themselves lack the nuances that those abstract qualities cultivate – and so the cycle continues.

Such qualities are, however, no less necessary now than they ever were; one might argue even more so as the purely manual aspects of life have continued to decline. Somewhere in the subconscious, I believe there is a vague awareness of this void – but it is not something that a short remedial action can alter: it is something cultivated by breathing the air of a healthy educational environment (and I mean that in the widest sense, to include the home and other environments) throughout one’s early development, and indeed indefinitely.

The present education system has attempted to address this issue by focusing on window-dressing. In my experience, a major part of school culture involved learning how to talk oneself up, no matter how justified it was or wasn’t. I witnessed many school assemblies where pupils were exhorted to see life as a “challenge”, a competition to “win”. I witnessed examples of this where pupils were encouraged to “work on their personal brand”, to polish their personal statement to the point where they reflected more what the recipients were deemed to want to hear than anything accurate about the author.

In other words, for several generations now have bought into the world of hype – and they have encouraged the people of this country to believe that glossy marketing is more important than any substance that might lie behind it. What’s more, the teachers didn’t just preach this to their pupils; in many cases it seemed to be how they ran their own careers. I was chided on more than one occasion for “failing to play the game” because I stuck to my academic ideals.

The root of this deception is of course that the primary aim in life is to get what you want from it, no matter how one does it. The truth is an acceptable casualty in this race, as are personal integrity and any more subtle qualities that are hard to demonstrate. Yet it is utterly the antithesis of an educated state of mind, which tends to be restrained, tolerant, enquiring – and modest.

It is not fair to blame this entirely on schools, because in a way they have only been reflecting changes in wider society driven by new media and such like. But it is arguably the case that had education not failed to equip people with better intellectual foundations in the first place, such superficial tendencies might not have gained the traction that they have. The real failure of schools and education is not in specific matters – but in their willingness to endorse such matters and exploit them, rather than making a stand in the name of a more profound integrity. It is this that has brought the nation to a position where very many within it are profoundly ignorant of civic responsibilities, or understanding of how civil society works – politics and constitution included – so busy have they been polishing their own personal brands.

If we have produced a nation in which individual self-realisation is the over-riding aim – and I believe that the majority of the nation now really does believe it believes this – then it is hardly surprising that our politicians behave in the same way. Their duty to the nation is little more than an inconvenience on one’s way to Power and a stellar career; seen in this light, the behaviour of many of them makes much more sense. Personal weakness, ignorance or incompetence no longer need be an impediment to reaching the top in politics, any more than in the many other fields where powerful people make bad decisions based on the hubristic imperative of their personal brands.

I still can’t forget the occasion when I walked in on a local politician whom I had briefed to talk to my students about the principles of democracy and parliamentary representation – and found him telling them instead about how amazing a career politics can be for the ambitious individual.

That we (collectively) get the politicians we deserve is probably true, though the reasons why are subtler than they seem.

(previously posted on my blog Teaching Personally)

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Carpe Diem

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A brief internet discussion with an Italian on social media a few days ago produced the following observation: “I think the British are just too afraid to go outside their comfort zone.” Well yes. But there is a back-story here: being on an island makes it harder for us to go outside our national comfort zone than for those on the continent (although southern Italians might disagree…) Even a committed European like me could only find the time and money to travel abroad a couple of times a year. Contrast that with my Swiss friend’s son – who went ‘abroad’ every day – to school. Even though that was only a matter of a few kilometres’ journey. It is so much easier to become internationalised when your geographical situation facilitates it.

And yet there more in that Italian guy’s comment than perhaps he knew. It has only ever been in the U.K. that I have heard people say such-and-such “is not for the likes of me”. I heard perfectly able students say it when I tried to encourage them to aim for the top universities. I heard a woman in my town say it the other day when I tried to encourage her to get involved with local decision-making.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of suggesting that a whole continent is uniform – and uniformly different from Britain – but it is nonetheless anecdotally true, as I have observed before, that people ‘over there’ seem less constrained by barriers not only of geography – but also in their own minds. It is one of the things I find attractive about continental culture: compared with Britain, anything – well, at least much more  – seems possible.

I think the reasons for this do come back to our sociopolitical situation. Everything about Britain is still predicated on competitive advantage. The aim in life seems to be to “get ahead” – but of what? The system? One’s fellow citizens? The purpose of ‘success’ in Britain seems to be to buy exclusivity – and I can only conclude that this is a hangover of a social system where rank was (still is?)  everything.

Another social media conversation a few days ago was quite enlivening – and then I checked the profile of my interlocutor. It turned out (since verified) that I had been talking, simply as one human to another, to the CEO of BMW. My perception in Britain is that the elite rarely talk to anyone except each other – and certainly not with the hoi polloi via unassuming Facebook threads.

It would of course be wrong to suggest that everyone is equal on the continent. They have their elites too – but experience suggests that while ambition in those countries may bring an enviable way of life,  it does not – at least to the same extent – bring snobbery. Over the years, I have met a fair number of influential continentals – from MEPs to the (Dutch) President of the UCI (International Cycling Federation ). I have observed and heard about the behaviour of others, from celebrated Swiss art dealers to executives in multinational companies.  Almost without exception, they seemed to lack the superiority complex of their British counterparts. (The principal exception was Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Spanish President of the IOC, who seemed to think he was the Emperor of the World; those others whose view was closer to the British seemed to come from countries which shared many of our social problems and attitudes).

Even in the European Parliament, it was very noticeable that it was the British (Conservative) MEPs who had the airs and graces; the rest, even in their own political grouping, seemed much more down-to-earth. I have also heard about the low esteem in which residual elites are held in those countries – they are figures for fun or pity, and they certainly do not possess the power to intimidate that they do in Britain.

I spy an irony here, in that those nations which shout loudest about ‘anything being possible’ – The USA and the UK – are actually those with some of the lowest social mobility. It seems that we have to keep shouting about it, because we know that it really isn’t true. When ‘opportunity’ is so much the monopoly of a few, the mentality amongst the rest, that much of life’s bounty really isn’t “for the likes of me”, seems inevitable. And that includes the ability to travel, to discover that it isn’t the same everywhere.

It is in those countries which are more equal to begin with, that perceived Opportunity really does present itself to more people. And what is more, the consequences and objectives of that opening seem different too. While the aspiration for a comfortable life is probably universal, the attaching of this to exclusivity seems not to be. Wealth and seniority do not automatically make one a superior person, simply a wealthier or more senior one. It is the conflation of wealth, elitism and power that have put Britain (and the US) in the positions in which they now find themselves.

In a sense, this blog Sprezzatura rails against this: beneath an apparently superficial preoccupation with the good things in life lies a more profound belief that they should not be the preserve of an elite, but be accessible to all who want them. That good life does not need to come – as many in Britain’s elite seem to think – at the expense of others. And in any case, the ‘good life’ is not only about material wealth or privilege: many of those good things are actually found in simplicity and attitude, rather than large bank balances and powerful connections.

What prevents more people from enjoying them is the conflation of good living with privilege – of things that are “not for the likes of me”. It is a barrier that seems to be at least much less strong in those nations that are not so persistently hierarchical in their mindset.

The antidote to this is indeed Carpe Diem. Seize The Day, no matter who you are – and make the most of it. And on this day of all – which was to have been Brexit day – I feel it essential to acknowledge the role played in our current reprieve by Gina Miller, without whose legal challenge we would now be having Brexit imposed on us by the most authoritarian, elitist government in recent British history. Even Parliament would not have had a look-in, had it not been for her.

It clearly took someone with wealth and connections like Miller to activate the necessary procedures to bring the legal challenge to May’s dictatorial instincts – but the striking thing about this woman is that she uses her wealth not just to bolster her own position, but for what she believes is the common good. She seized a day without which today would be our last in the EU. I hope she is eventually sainted for it.

While she is a British citizen, it is of course noticeable that she takes at least some of her cultural leads from her past, elsewhere in the world. We British have a lot still to learn.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Why should only some have prizes?

Mrs May today says she “shares British people’s frustration” that Brexit has not (yet) been completed. In doing so she illustrates perfectly the endemic problem with British politics that got us into this fix in the first place: she is quite at liberty utterly to disregard the opinions of the at-least-half of the population that disagrees with her. We simply don’t exist, let alone figure in her reckoning. She can claim she speaks for the nation when she clearly does not. Our fate, as a beaten (supposed) minority, need be of no interest to her.

This is the result of a system that is based on disagreement and confrontation rather than consensus-seeking. It is a system based on beating your opponents and then ignoring them. Both major parties are as bad as each other when the chips are down and they win power. This is no way to run a pluralistic modern nation.

This is the system that allows the Conservative Party to describe itself as “the natural party of government”. The fault in that is not the obvious one – but the implication that governing a country needs to be a zero-sum choice in the first place. It is also the system that then allows this party – true to its name – to resist modernising the nation and preserving the privileged classes upon which it has always heavily drawn.

This is why we urgently need electoral reform. While there is no perfect system, and it is true that most of the alternatives are both more complex and less certain, that actually reflects the realities of life, which is no longer as straightforwardly feudal-tribal as our antiquated system presupposes. The implications are far reaching: not only does consensual politics send an entirely different message to the populace, one of inclusiveness rather than monopoly, but I suggest that it eventually effects the very way in which people think about both politics and society more widely.

This nation is handicapped by a confrontational national model that goes far beyond politics – the mentality of winner takes all. It has done immense damage to the country over the decades, not least because of the sense of disenfranchisement and outrage that it fosters, and the frequent reversals of national policy that it causes. It takes a regressive view of life that says only some are entitled to opportunities and rewards – ironically quite the opposite of both right-wing views on ‘opportunity’. and the left-wing view of inclusiveness.

When it comes to Brexit, the argument is not symmetrical: within the EU, nobody is forced to acknowledge that organisation: people are free utterly to ignore it if they so choose. But outside the EU, the rights of pro-Europeans to exercise their wishes and loyalties will be prevented: another case of unnecessary zero-sum politics.

The view that life needs to be about ‘winners’ – and hence ‘losers’ – in my view has no place in a just modern society. Life is both more complex and more random than that, and when it comes to opportunity and fortune, ‘no man is an island’. Ultimately, we are all dependent on each other, and our systems should reflect that fact.

Whatever happens with Brexit, it is essential that this is changed in future. Unfortunately the very nature of the present system makes that, in my judgement, very unlikely, even after the present experience. What will it take to bring about change to a healthier national mindset?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Significance of Flags

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This is the Maladière roundabout in Lausanne, Switzerland. If you arrive in the city by motorway from the west, this is where you end up. I remember it clearly from my first visit over thirty years ago. Lausanne is, of course, global home of the International Olympic Committee, and so proud is the city of this fact, that it has adorned the roundabout with over thirty-five flagpoles, from each of which flutter white Olympic flags. On most days, this presents a joyous and animated gateway to the city: it is quite a sight. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the roundabout, for all that I have passed it many times – and on the day Google Earth was there, there was clearly no wind. But you get the idea.

The U.K. doesn’t really have a tradition of mass flag flying, which is a pity as it is one of the windiest countries in Europe. And while we do have a fondness for our rather garish flag itself, we perhaps underestimate the importance of such things in the symbolism of nation-building. In fact, that activity is something else that has never really been felt necessary in a democratic way either. Most of the ‘wind’ hitherto generated in this country was dedicated to bigging-up the Empire (and post-Empire), and the upper classes whom it most benefitted. It was rarely inclusive. And now that flag has been significantly misappropriated by the far Right anyway.

The Europhile introspection in Britain, about where it all went wrong, shows little sign of abating. It seems increasingly accepted that the case for Britain in Europe was not lost in spring 2016 – but over the forty preceding years in which absolutely no convincing case whatsoever was made to the British people at large, as to why they should begin to see themselves as part of a European whole. The cynic in me suspects that this was entirely deliberate on the part of the political classes – as one article I read recently suggested, the U.K. saw its relationship with the continent as solely mercantile. It still does.

The next photo perhaps underlines the importance of flags: those of all the nations flying outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

EU-Flags

As well as animating an otherwise rather dull open space, this sends a powerful message, one seen frequently all over the continent, where the EU flag routinely flies alongside national and regional ones on city halls and other public buildings.

It’s not that we don’t understand this significance in Britain: we are more than happy for the flags of Australia and New Zealand, for example, to incorporate the Union Jack. I wonder how we would feel, though, if it became a requirement to incorporate the gold stars into national flags in the same way. I suspect that might be a step too far for even the most communitaire of European Commissions. In the U.K., it was controversial enough to put the stars on car registration plates, prompting a backlash from the nationalists that one still doesn’t see anywhere else.

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My last photo shows the exterior of Essex County Hall in Chelmsford taken a couple of weeks ago. There are four flag poles by the main entrance – quite excessive by British standards. The Essex, England and UK flags are all present – and one empty pole. I don’t ever recall seeing this occupied by the logical next step in the sequence, in thirty years of living in the area, though I may have missed it…

It has always been unusual to see the EU flag flying in Britain – so much so that I normally stopped and double-took in pride when did I see it. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

In amongst all the media campaigns being organised to promote Remain, it might not have been a bad thing if, at some point in the past, there had been a concerted campaign to fly the EU flag across the country. I think the effect over those forty years would have been far more powerful.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

“Why would I need to?”

Donald Rumsfeld probably deserved flak for a lot of things. But not the one that he took most for. His 2002 speech about Unknown Unknowns was entirely logical, if a little hard on the ear. In it, he identified a critical issue in human understanding – the problem that we don’t know what we don’t know. It is an issue that is repeatedly underplayed, because it seems like too much of an admission of the limits of human capabilities.

I don’t want to revisit the political aspects of Brexit again here – because I think that, if anything, the cultural aspects of the matter are more interesting, if more intractable. Even if the U.K. manages to find a political resolution to its current difficulties, the other aspects of our relationship with the continent will endure. Brexit has sparked a massive bout of introspection on the part of this nation, but for all of it, I can’t help thinking that we are still a long way from getting to the root of the problem: that requires a depth of insight that is simply not within the experience of most Britons. For the vast majority, the rest of Europe remains either the source of original evil, or a kind of cultural theme park where we take our holidays. Most of the resolution to this lies within the realm of what we don’t know we don’t know, within layers of cultural conditioning so deep that we don’t even know they’re there.

I remember the first time I met a French person who had never been to the U.K. I asked why. “Why would I need to?” was the answer. And in that single reply lies the whole problem for British understanding. It prompted in me a moment of introspection that I doubt many Britons have had. For the simple fact is, for the majority of Europeans, Britain is not the exceptional place that those who live here still believe it is. It is certainly not central to the functioning of their lives.

And yet many in Britain even today still struggle with the idea that their island is not ‘normal’ – nor the centre of the world as they have always believed.

Arrive in Dublin from Holyhead, and you will encounter a very functional working port, and it is immediately obvious that the whole of Ireland is, by virtue of its geography, heavily dependent on imports. Arrival in Dover from Calais doesn’t have quite the same impact, because private vehicles appear to make up the dominant flow – but one only needs to consider the fact that some 10,000 lorries pass through it each day to remember that Britain’s island nature makes us equally dependent on the outside world: in purely physical terms, we live in a place relatively apart from the bulk of human activity. And yet this is so ‘normal’ to Britons that the perceptual distortions that it causes remain for many, unknown unknowns. One might ponder the real reasons why many Britons say they prefer it this way.

One of main consequences of island-living is a very real inability to see what happens elsewhere – and this has the effect of making island cultures habitually inward-looking and self-referential. It is not only the British: the Japanese are in some ways our best comparator here, and they exhibit a rather similar bi-polar attitude to the wider world. What’s more, that very inward-lookingness means we often fail to notice potentially useful parallels even on our doorstep: the British have historically considered the Irish to be provincial and inward-looking, without seeing that the same could be said about them, when seen from the continent. “Why would I need to?” could just as easily be an English response to the prospect of visiting Ireland.

History shows us a thing or two about how the British treat other places: as Nesrine Malik pointed out in The Guardian recently, the British state has been a “machine for running and exploring the world” – but that obsession has left it not much good at modern state-building on the home front. Most of the effort went into building belief in a national brand whose main focus was external – except to the extent that it benefitted the ruling classes. It was largely blind to the need to build an efficient and equitable society at home, which is why even today much of the country suffers from poor infrastructure compared to our neighbours. Britain’s historic treatment of Ireland is also informative here: under British rule, Ireland was impoverished and neglected (unless you were part of the imported aristocracy); under the auspices of the EU, it has received investment and infrastructure, and has thrived – at least in relative terms. No wonder the Irish are Remainers.

The problem boils down to one of pluralism: an island state like Britain has a very different conception of itself from a continental one. When your national frontiers largely correspond with the limits of your land mass, the nation-state assumes a significance that it can never quite achieve on a continent, where one is ever-mindful that one’s nation is indisputably but one part of a larger whole. In Britain, one is rarely forced to accept such pluralities – and where we have to, in Ireland – we have not dealt with them well, even as recently as 2016, where it scarcely featured in the Brexit debate.

It is simply impossible in Britain to do the equivalent of what I have done many times in Switzerland: to sit in a tower-block in the Novartis Campus in Basel and look down on everyday life continuing quite normally in three countries, complete with language and cultural differences – all within a radius of a few tens of metres. It’s not true that everything is sweetness and light: the Swiss-German border seems more porous than the Swiss-French one, not least because of cultural affinities, but it is also possible to detect more antipathy towards the French than the Germans in that part of Switzerland. But above and beyond such sentiments – or perhaps because of them – one is daily reminded that one’s nation-state is not all there is to it. History only serves to reinforce that fact.

It takes a long time to appreciate the perceptual differences that this can foster. I have visited Switzerland perhaps thirty times in as many years, and have got to know local people well. I have had similar, if less protracted contact with others in several other countries. You need to spend serious time, and get to know them as individuals (as you would at home) before these things become visible. You need to reach the point where nationality as an issue becomes almost invisible.

The most obvious is the fact that continentals’ mindset operates at a supra-national scale: going to another country is ‘normal’, not novel. For quite a few, it is just a short drive away. They think little more of it than a Briton does when moving between Scotland, Wales and England. It means that co-operation across those borders is natural to the point of itself being an ‘unknown unknown’ issue – it is just taken for granted that that is the way the world is. Understanding this also rams home just what a tragedy Twentieth Century history was for those nations, in a way that, yet again, Britain could only observe from a semi-detached position.

Yet the basic facts of Geography mean that such interaction does not happen so naturally with respect to the British Isles. I suspect that the vast majority of British people even today have no regular contact with people on the continent – and probably vice versa. Where it does happen, it is most likely to be with ex-pats, who are by definition not locals. Going on holiday for a week or two simply will not do it: you need to sit in locals’ homes, socialise with them, visit their work places, live their daily lives with them before it even starts to soak in. You need to see them no differently from how you would see people who live in a different county.

And then you start to realise that they are indeed operating rather different software. They do not have the same deference to hierarchy; wealth is less directly linked to social status and particularly in republics, the sense that the People (rather than the monarchy) are the State, I believe makes a tangible difference to how they live their lives, the sense of ownership they exhibit towards their countries, the sense that their nations are collective, joint endeavours, rather than being run largely for the benefit of a small elite as is still the case in Britain.

It works the other way too, of course. Britain is just as remote to continentals, indeed more so, because if you have no business there, “why would you need” to visit? It is the same attitude that many British manifest towards Ireland – a remote, offshore place whose habits we don’t quite understand.

But the continentals, too, made one fundamental mistake in their relationship with Britain which they are only now discovering: they assumed that Britain was just another European nation, just like their own. They failed to comprehend the issues of island-hood just as we fail to comprehend their continental-ness. Our inability to explain them ourselves, did not help.

Their inability to see daily life here led them to conclude that the British Establishment’s projections of life in the higher echelons (as encountered through, for example, the diplomatic service) were an accurate representation of the true nature and mentality of the nation – which of course, they are not. To this day, I am often surprised by the strength of the upper-class stereotypes some continentals hold about the British.

They failed to appreciate the complexity of these islands – as some of their politicians admitted when they belatedly took a visit to the border lands of Ireland. The easy assumption that “we are all Europeans now” failed to allow for the superstitions of those who geographically can never be fully part of the continental project – but whose more significant frontiers are in the mind. They don’t understand the exceptionalism that insular geography creates – and they don’t know how to interact with it, because all their normal continental assumptions about the need for international co-operation, co-habitation and the Greater Good simply don’t work with a self-contained island race.

It has always been thus, even to the highest levels: British policy documents over the decades reveal repeated references to Britain’s ‘national interest’ in its European dealings. Well, all countries have national interests, of course – but in Britain’s case, the tone clearly presupposes a conflict between national and international interests; it is one of aggressive competitiveness, very rarely of the General European Good. One is left with the sense that such notions are unknown unknowns.

My repeated visits to the continent gradually shifted my perception; my default mental map is now that of Europe – with Britain stuck in its marginal position in the top left-hand corner. But in reaching this position, I also started to glimpse the different assumptions that operate on the continent as a result: the emphasis of nations there on the common societal good – a term one rarely hears convincingly expressed in Britain, where ‘Society’ is either insignificant – or a never-ending class struggle. It is shown in the way many continental countries are innovating in everything from social rights to environmental good practice – while at the same moment in time, Britain is discussing rolling back Human Rights post Brexit. What greater contrast does one need?

My experiences of the continent repeatedly suggest that those countries – under the umbrella of the EU – are making far more progress in terms of building good societies than is Britain. While there are always exceptions, people there generally live in better homes, more pleasant towns, they drive on better roads, travel in better trains, have more workplace and democratic rights, have less atomised communities, take their environmental responsibilities more seriously, they have less corrupted legislatures, and they generally have a more optimistic, positive view of life, than is common in this country. What’s more, fewer of them seem obsessed with wealth and celebrity and overt competitiveness – simply because getting on with normal life is not the trial for most, which it has increasingly become in Britain as the elite has sucked in more and more of our nation’s resources for itself.

And yet, the conversation in Britain, for all the soul-searching, betrays little evidence that these things are really known. Until we start to tackle these things, our chances of really addressing those highly significant differences in world-view between us and our neighbours will remain – Unknown.

I explored the issues discussed here in more detail in my book ‘It’s a Bit Late for that Now!’  available in paperback and e-book on Amazon.

Food, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

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One perhaps might have expected Sprezzatura to be mourning the loss of Patisserie Valerie – but I can’t. It occurred to me that the company’s recent difficulties are symptomatic of the bigger issues swilling around in British civil life at present.

What started out in 1926 as a single, much-loved cafe founded by the eponymous Belgian émigrée spawned several other branches in London without losing too much of its historic character. I only visited once, but it was like walking off a London street straight into a small corner of northern France. But then it was taken over by an ‘entrepreneur’. Eventually a large share was sold to venture capitalists, and it was rolled out as a chain of some 200 outlets. It became a shadow of what it had been, little more than a themed pastiche of the original. As David Mitchell wrote in The Observer, like all chains, the original cafe’s identity became little more than a watered-down ‘front’ for yet another cash-conveyer for big business.

As I have bemoaned before, the same fate befell Costa Coffee a couple of decades ago. What had been characterful, family-run Italian coffee bars beamed down in London was acquired by Whitbread, and turned into the clone empire that we see today. To be fair, in both cases the quality of the product has not suffered too much, though I have always bemoaned the lack of alcohol in some of Valerie’s offerings: Black Forest gateau is just not the same without (expensive) kirsch. Costa’s coffee remains markedly better than its competitors, despite its susceptibility for the usual marketing-led seasonal gimmicks. (Drive-through Costa, on the other hand, is just too far removed from the real culture of coffee not to be an abomination).

The intangible character of both institutions, which played an essential if indefinable part in making them what they were, has been utterly obliterated beneath the disposable stage-dressing of the corporate shop-fit. As Mitchell says, the identity of chain outlets is essentially interchangeable; in aesthetic terms, there is nothing to stop a Valerie becoming a Pizza Hut next week and a McDonald’s the week after. It is all just window-dressing; the honest, unique character has gone forever, as have the eccentricities that corporate-land just doesn’t understand and can’t tolerate. With what’s left, Established 1926 is now close to being just another corporate lie.

It is perhaps no surprise, too, that with the growth of the organisation far beyond the original family business, it took on corporate individuals who turned out to be fully prepared to bankrupt it in pursuit of their own wealth. Large conglomerates rarely command the loyalty that begets the integrity needed to cultivate such business in the long term.

But how is this representative of the nation’s wider woes? It seems pretty generally accepted that Brexit was motivated by the disaffection of the ‘left-behind’ classes in their hollowed-out out provincial towns. The spread of Patisserie Valerie may have brought a little panache to such places, a shallow semblance of national cohesion and democratisation – but its likely and equally summary departure will leave behind yet more empty premises.

The real problem runs deeper than that, though: by their presence in such places, chains contributed to the siphoning-off of local wealth and its transfer to large corporations. And as with Starbucks before them, they may well have killed off local businesses which, while possibly not as glossy, at least had local roots, and ploughed their income back into their communities. Being small, they also often had the character and quirkiness that no mass-produced chain can ever replicate. And by being so, they also contributed to a local sense of place. In their stead, one senses lost local autonomy – these ‘outlets’ are run by and for people a long way away, with no local knowledge or concern, each place they land on just another ‘retail opportunity’ to add to the corporate bottom line.

It has to be admitted that small businesses in France are also retreating – but the Italians seem largely to be holding out. One might also ponder the amount of employment that hundreds of small, local cafes and restaurants create – I suspect rather more, and for different people, than the chains that ousted them.

One might have welcomed the arrival of cafe culture in this country – and with it the glories of the traditional French patisserie. But in typical British style, what we actually got was large conglomerates selling watered-down facsimiles of the real thing on an industrial scale. Not at all the same thing as the multitude of such places that still give towns in France and Italy their appeal. How do they get away with it? Why will the British populace accept this, in a way which their peers in France or Italy just would not? (And come to think of it why, as Mitchell also observes, is the British mainstay not the millefeuille but the iced bun? Maybe that explains a lot…)

The emergence of these chains is explained solely by a political culture in this country that embraces big corporations with little thought for their impact on communities or local economies. That they suck wealth out of provincial centres and into metropolitan corporations is no problem for governments in thrall to The City. But it feels very different from the other end of the line: the turning of our regional centres into clone towns, dominated by large extractive businesses, feels wrong. And while even a Starbucks may be preferable to an empty building, the blighting effect of large chains on local businesses is not imaginary.

It has contributed to a very immediate, local sense that the whole country is being run by, and for the exclusive benefit of, big business – absorbing and bastardising any good concept from which it can make a buck, sweeping all before its own selfish interests, be that the quality of the Black Forest gateau or the proper employment and training of local staff. One only has to enter an independent cafe or restaurant to notice that the whole character and ethos of such places is different: somehow more authentic, more distinctive, closer to those on the continent.

To be fair, Luke Johnson (still the majority owner of Valerie) has tried to do the honourable thing, ploughing in his own wealth to save the company and its employees. But big business simply does not work in the same way as small – investors are anonymous and impersonal, and care about little other than their dividends. And with a staff of thousands, there is simply no way one can retain the personal touch.

I can’t help but feel that this corporatisation of Britain and the sterilisation of the social function of places like cafes, bars and restaurants, have contributed to the wider disaffection. Unlike the pride that a good, proprietor-owned cafe often takes in its products and its relationship with customers, chains are impersonal, transient and lacking in any real character. They could, by definition, be anywhere. People are served mass-produced, dumbed-down ‘product’ whose main purpose is to minimise corporate overheads, in bland surroundings whose main purpose is to be cheaply replicable anywhere – and easily disposable when the time comes for a corporate re-brand.

People have been given the choice between no services and corporate giants, and to anyone concerned about local distinctiveness – let alone the quality of the cake – it does all feel very wrong. It’s not surprising that people feel alienated. But we can’t absolve the wider population either: for all that the choices may have been limited, these chains have only flourished because of the indiscriminate willingness of the population to be served cheap, conveyor-belt food and drink in cardboard cut-out surroundings, when they could have been supporting authentic local alternatives.

To that extent, the nation has once again got what it deserves: a whole country that is little more than a dumbed-down clone of itself, largely run for the benefit of a few shareholders.  A rootless Anywheresville of non-communities which makes life itself feel fake – and only now, when it may be too late, is it realising the cost of its obsession with cheapness, gimmickry and its acceptance of bland uniformity.

Like the Brexit decision which resulted, it could all have been so different.