I’m pleased to announce the publication of my third book, It’s a bit Late for that Now! Britain’s relationship with the continent (before and after Brexit).
To speed things up, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is and self-publish this one.
The book is pro-Europe, not specifically pro-E.U., and addresses long-term issues that will be important whatever happens in the political arena. I hope it will be of interest no matter which side of the argument is preferred.
You can purchase print-on-demand copies direct from the publisher here
One way of assessing the condition of a nation is to look at its landscapes. There are of course many factors that influence the physical appearance of an area: the topography, the climate, the ecology, geology and so on.
But part of the equation is also the prevailing social and economic conditions. The landscapes reflect the way in which a nation manages its territory: the levels of investment, the planning systems, the architectural requirements, the attitudes and expectations of the people towards their surroundings, the history of the nation.
Google Earth presents a fantastic opportunity for surveying such things, so I thought I would conduct a small experiment to see what could be found with as objective an approach as is reasonably possible.
In coming posts, I am going to present sequences of ten photographs chosen more or less at random by ‘dropping in’ on places. I will mostly leave readers to draw their own conclusions, but if I do have a point to prove, it is that the care and effort put into the surroundings in different countries does vary significantly – and that it makes a material difference to the places in which people live, physical conditions notwithstanding. I suppose I should also confess my expectation that the U.K. does not fare particularly well in terms of its built environment.
The ‘rules’ I set myself were:
1. Set the camera at an altitude of about 500km (high enough to take in a large part of the country, and to obscure any obvious features).
2. Drag the peg-man and drop before the map has stopped moving, thus making the destination as random as possible.
3. When the image resolves, ‘permission’ is granted to take a 360 degree look around and choose the most interesting view.
4. Not to move the camera laterally from where it falls.
5. One reject allowed in each ten samples to allow for tedious repetition or utterly bland images that show nothing of interest.
6. The above accepted, aim for reasonable spatial coverage – e.g. don’t just drop the peg in the middle of the country each time.
In some cases, it is even possible to land inside a building, which can reveal things about the style and quality of interiors.
A perhaps surprising thing is how rarely one lands in the centre of a major urban area: while these dominate the social climate in a country, in spatial terms, they are very small. One lands far more frequently in open countryside (which is reassuring in a certain way) and, in the U.K. at least in identikit suburbs (which is perhaps less so).
Ten pictures are hardly enough to present a coherent impression of a country, and by definition a random sample may be neither consistent nor representative. But as a random slice through the combined effects of physical and human activity, they can perhaps tell us something. The first two countries presented here are Germany and the U.K. More to follow in subsequent posts.
We in Britain are regularly regaled with the claim that every next new thing is going to be ‘world class’. Methinks the country doth protest too much: anywhere that needs to bang on like this with such tedious regularity deep down knows that it is way off the mark. But it’s cheaper and easier to slap the ‘W-C’ label on something than actually do anything about it. But too often, that abbreviation really does have a better meaning.
Case in question is the new Swiss-made trains shortly to be delivered for my local Greater Anglia rail service. (Non rail-enthusiasts bear with me here – there is a wider point coming…) Knowing Swiss Railways inside out, I leapt with anticipation when the announcement was made a couple of years ago that Anglia would be the first British franchise to be buying Swiss in a big way.
Now I generally have a favourable view of Greater Anglia as being one of the more enlightened franchisees – probably something to do with their in reality being Dutch. And it is true that excellent cycle facilities now abound at stations all over their network.
But an article in the industry-journal Modern Railways suggests that once again, the new trains represent a missed opportunity. The first train is due in the U.K. about now, and I await visual confirmation that we do have proper Swiss build-quality.
But the insides are as dull as every other British train. Anglia claims to have focus-group tested the designs – but as the MR article points out, people can only compare against what they know. And in the case of British trains, that is not a great start.
Comments from the manufacturer also sound underwhelmed with the end result – but they pointed out that they only deliver what the customer asks for. How Swiss. But that lays the blame for this lost opportunity firmly back at the British end of the contract.
It is of course true that British trains are smaller than continental ones, and that does create real problems – but why does Britain have seat-specifications (supposedly in the name of safety – read litigation) far in excess of what the EU requires – and which rule out most of the better seating in use elsewhere? It leaves us with ultra-high backs which render the interior claustrophobic, while fire standards mean that almost no padding can be provided – hence recent widespread complaints about how hard the seats are in new trains. It is most definitely NOT that pesky EU spoiling our chance to have good old British rubbish here.
The real problem is that those who specifiy British train design are more concerned with maximising capacity (hence revenue) and minimising repair costs. It is also the case that many who profess to be impressed quite possibly haven’t seen the alternatives available in other countries. And yet the country persists with the ridiculous nonsense about world-class everything. It kids no-one with a slightly wider perspective.
While train design might hardly seem to be a world-stopping issue, this matter serves to illustrate some wider issues:
1) Poverty of expectation in this country is alive and well and expressed in things as everyday as trains. It is partly because so few experience what happens elsewhere.
2) Short-term, profit-driven so-called public services will only ever deliver bargain-basement quality because of the need to make a quick return.
3) ‘World-class’ actually means precisely the opposite. It is an excuse for having to think genuinely hard about getting something right.
4) This country never learns. And that includes the fact that in many cases, standards really are higher on the continent. I expect that these trains really will represent an improvement on what went before – but that is more an indictment of the past, rather than much to crow about. We are still a good way off the best.
Never mind, soon with our World-Class Brexit we will officially soon be officially rid of those pesky continentals and their ludicrous ideas – and we can carry on doing World-Class mediocre to our hearts’ content.
How often is it the case that one overlooks the benefits of the familiar? I suspect I’m not the only one who tends not to venture out into my nearer region as often as I should. Though my new walking regime has at least encouraged a move in the right direction.
East Anglia is not exactly known for its dramatic scenery – but what it does do well is miniatures – small, quiet and often very picturesque corners. Dedham Vale, part of the Stour Valley, on the border between Essex and Suffolk is one such area: now designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it was the subject of many paintings by John Constable.
Even though both the A12 trunk road and the main railway line cross the area, the tranquility is surprisingly rarely broken, though the small road in one of the pictures below was a lot busier than one might expect, it being a cut-through to the railway station at Manningtree, whence commuters head for Liverpool Street Station in London.
The weather was on its best behaviour yesterday, for a walk from Dedham to Flatford Mill, which Constable painted several times, and back. There is a pleasant National Trust cafe at the Mill, which has become a centre for nature studies in the area. A selection of pictures taken along the river and back in Dedham, itself give a taste…
Very pleasant for an early-autumn walk; with thanks to my two companions for a good day out.
After far too long a break, we found ourselves back in Sprezzatura’s spiritual homeland this week. After a couple of years in which travel has been difficult, we spent a few days in Bologna – and much good it did me. It was my fourth visit to the city, which is rather overlooked in comparison with Florence, Venice and Sienna. A business centre it may be, but in some ways all the better for it. Unlike the honeypots, the city is not drowning in tourists, and you do feel as though you are seeing something close to the real place rather than a pastiche put on for visitors. You don’t hear very much being spoken in the streets other than Italian.
While it perhaps lacks the top-division attractions of those other cities, it has plenty of very attractive quarters, and is also a great place just for wandering. Many of its streets are lined with colonnades which make walking a pleasure, shielding both the summer sun and winter rain. And there is an infinite supply of entrancing shops and bars just asking to be sampled. A visit had to be made to the local branch of Boggi, albeit for only a small treat…
It is home to the oldest university in the world, and also some of Italy’s best food. And it has an airport that is a mere 30 minutes away by shuttle bus.
Equally welcome was the fact that despite the current sterling-Euro exchange rate, Bologna is still affordable – again it escapes the ritual milking of the tourist market.
We rented a small but nicely contemporary apartment in a small street right in the centre; the nearest espresso was about 30 seconds away. We were also spoilt for eateries within about a ten minute walk, and just around the corner were the entertainingly chi-chi boutiques of the Via San Felice. Within about five minutes’ walk was the Mercato delle Erbe, an indoor market where cheeses, hams, bread, fruit, vegetables fresh pasta and just about every other culinary product of Italy could be bought – useful for ad hoc lunches.
Most of the sights can be covered on foot in a couple of hours – but the good thing about Bologna, as previously mentioned, is that it is just a great place for hanging out, wandering and people-watching. You don’t really need to be doing very much at all: the free show of great style and the natural vigour of Italian street life are entertaining enough on their own. You can be pretty sure that every classic image of Italian life will come by within a few minutes….
On our second day, we caught the train to Parma, a place to which a pilgrimage has been long-overdue. The hour on the regionale cost a mere £11 return. We were surprised at how low-key Parma is too: another (smaller) very attractive town, but seemingly mostly still ‘owned’ by its locals, with only relatively restrained evidence of its exquisite culinary wares. Nonetheless, insalata parmenese was an indispensible choice for lunch…
You can pack a good amount into a mere three nights away, and the trip proved to be an excellent tonic after the trials of the past two years. And the temperatures still in the low thirties in mid September were welcome too, though we are feeling unseasonably chilly now back home…
It’s always very difficult to know how accurate an impression one is getting when visiting foreign places, and it is all too easy to draw inaccurate conclusions from what are inevitably generalisations, and perhaps not fully realistic ones either. Italy has many difficulties, but its general deficit vis à vis the U.K. has clearly shrunk in recent years: much work has been done to tackle the decline I saw when I first visited in the late ‘80s. Even the trains are much less clapped out than they were, and while I hesitate to admit this, the wider presence of English does make functioning easier than it used to be, when one hadn’t a hope against the torrent of Italian one generally received in return for venturing even a little in their own language…
I wouldn’t dream of living in most cities in Britain: despite their own good progress, they are too often too large, too characterless and too suburban to be pleasurable, with the good bits being out of the reach of ordinary mortals. By contrast, Italian cities throb with down-to-earth vitality, no doubt in large part due to the fact that many people do still live right in the centre. Many of the same urban pressures must exist in Italy too, and yet they still manage to produce places that are chaotic, intense and immensely vibrant, where one could easily imagine living. And it is that verve for everyday good living, rather than its organisational abilities, that makes Italy simply a fantastic, inspirational place.
Not so long ago, this country spent much time congratulating itself on how it had transformed itself from the culinary dunce of the modern world into its finest destination. New eateries seemed to be popping up on a weekly basis, and the quality and choice on offer was always improving. So what happened?
I have no doubt there are now many more good places to eat in Britain than used to be the case, some of which I have mentioned previously in this blog – but as always, we seem to have fallen victim to faddism, of which veganism is probably just the latest manifestation. This, in my mind, is not the transformation that was being claimed, and given the disparities I see between the foodie culture being purveyed in the media (much of which I suspect is consumed vicariously) and what trundles down the average supermarket checkout conveyor, I wonder whether anything has really changed.
For the increased niceties of the top end do not a revolution make. Far more important in my view are the daily habits of the population at large. Here at Sprezz. H.Q. I can claim with pride, but more importantly honesty, that food is prepared from scratch on a daily basis, wherever possible using fresh ingredients from the unassuming local farm shop. It is not posh food, more often than not a bowl of pasta or a salad with a few comfortable old favourites regularly thrown in for good measure. But even this may be unusual – who knows?
A recent visit to Lincoln reinforced my doubts. I hadn’t been to that city since childhood, and it was indeed a pleasant place to spend a couple of days. The cathedral and its close are very fine, and even the more mundane parts have benefitted from a seemingly-attentive local council and the arrival of one of the country’s more successful new universities.
The place clearly has some wealth (which I mention inasmuch as it may indicate the existence of foodie types), but it is by no means all gentrified. We enjoyed our couple of days there – but the one disappointment was the food. This is not a ‘pop’ at Lincoln, for I suspect the issue is equally true of most British towns; we certainly found the same to be true in Newark, where we called en route, and our local towns don’t seem to be very different either. In fact, things seem to have gone downhill in recent years. The vast majority of eateries that we found were either the usual clone-chains (which have colonised Lincoln’s pleasant waterfront as predictably as they have in Poole, Ipswich and most other places) – and those independents that we did find seemed largely intent on pretending they were chains too.
There was a preponderance of burgers (sometimes posh, sometimes not), steak, chips, and various things covered in melted cheese. Even the several eateries in our hotel were pretty much the same. To the annoyance of my wife, many of such salads as were on offer contained meat, and nothing to suggest one might ask for anything different. We tried what was reputedly the best Italian restaurant in town – which was also noisily trying to pretend it was actually a fast food joint; the food was passable but nothing special, and the service abrupt, though definitely not in the French way…. Much of the menu still came with chips, sad lettuce leaves and slices of under-ripe tomato – and if that was acclaimed at the best….
Compare this to the average French, German or Italian town, where in our experience, one has a fighting chance of finding decent, basic food even at the most average pavement cafe. The produce is fresh, the variety wide and the willingness to accommodate individual needs normally present. I know climate plays a part in this – but it is not as though imported produce is not available. And in any case, the real trick is to use local produce, of which Lincolnshire is hardly short. To be fair, there were a number of decent independent butchers and more selling local produce; it just didn’t seem to be making it into the restaurants.
On the second night, we repaired to Carluccio’s – which while a chain has at least stuck to its founder’s vision, and reliably offers good food in pleasant surroundings; in our opinion it exceeded the previous night’s experience.
Despite the nation’s crowing about its food, I suspect there is now a general decline going on. The ‘casual dining’ chains are losing customers and closing branches. I’m not surprised given the uninspiring offerings they too often have – but I’m not confident they are falling from grace in favour of superior offerings. Unfortunately, even Carluccio’s is suffering – though I was pleased to ascertain that the Lincoln branch will remain. The place needs it.
And just to conclude (partly for the benefits of the Lincolnites who may read this) this piece is not a slur on that city; we very much enjoyed our visit. It is a fine place that warrants attention, even if a little tatty round the edges. It just a happened to function as a semi-random test of the current state of public dining in the U.K. – and it would seem that other than trophy-dining at the upper end of the market, not as much has changed as we seemed to believe.