Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Maybe it Cannes…

To be frank, for the principal town of an attractive county, Ipswich is rather a disappointment. Having been a major port, it suffers from many of the post-industrial problems of much larger places: derelict land, low incomes and a workforce widely lacking many currently-marketable skills.

The town centre has some fine buildings, though it also suffers from more than its fair share of bland sixties and seventies development. The town was bombed during the second world war, and some of its inner areas seem never to have fully recovered.

The local authority seems aware of the difficulties and has made efforts to rebalance the town. It is an intractable problem: on the one hand, the local population has pressing immediate needs, and yet on the other, as many places have realised, the only real solution to urban decline is to try to attract new blood, hopefully in the form of high skill, high income arrivees, who will bring different lives and habits with them. But how to attract them to places that may not cater for their expectations?

The town centre has had several facelifts over the years, the latest of which seems to have improved some of its streetscapes – but there is only so much that can be achieved while those unappealing buildings remain… and the sad reality is, the local population does not much resemble the chic mannequins that populate the architects’ visualisations either in appearance or some of its behaviour. More Marseille than San Tropez…

Ipswich does, however, have one major ace: its waterfront, which for those interested in industrial archaeology, includes some iconic building such as the R&W Paul warehouses. I last visited the area maybe twenty years ago, when much of it was still semi-derelict, with just the early shoots of revival beginning to show. It was indeed starkly atmospheric, even near death.

Ipswich docks in 1982

In the meantime, a wholesale redevelopment has occurred, which is belatedly reaching its latter stages, after a stop-start experience following the 2008 financial crash, which hit a number of the developers hard. The aspirational role-model is not hard to see – a kind of Monaco or Cannes on the North Sea. A mix of renovation and new-build has created what I feel is a generally successful new quarter, with the planners’ habitual recipe of shops, restaurants and residential development. Some of the buildings are more successful than others (I do dislike post-modern re-interpretations of historic buildings, especially when the two sit cheek-by-jowl; it only devalues the real thing. The contemporary architecture, while uneven, is better). Fortunately, the decision was made to adopt modern street furniture rather than the fake Victoriana that was the default choice in early such schemes.

The fearless use of tall buildings echoes the old warehouses and grain silos, and has created an ‘amphitheatre’ with a skyline that successfully gives a sense of place in otherwise flat surroundings. The new University of Suffolk has also been lured to locate its campus on the waterfront, in the knowledge of a potential permanent supply of young for the bars and cafes and it has invested in reasonable examples of a building style that I fully expect in due course to become known as “University Modern”.

It is permanently high tide behind the inner harbour’s lock gates, which give out onto the Orwell estuary, a scenic ten-mile ria that stretches to the North Sea proper at Felixstowe. This means that the sleek yachts and cruisers that now populate the water need never sully their keels in the east coast mud… The still-working chandlers and marine estate agents lend an edge that means the area does not feel over-preserved.

If this were indeed Cannes or the south of France more generally, most of those units would be occupied by a mosaic of small independent traders, rather than the usual-suspect chain restaurant that normally invade such places in the U.K. and instantly turn what could be distinctiveness into just another sad high-street clone. Luckily, this has not entirely happened in Ipswich; while some of said chains are present, there also seem to be a number of local operations and the overall mix is reasonably successful.

Unfortunately, at present the waterfront remains disconnected from the town centre; while St Peter’s Street offers an interesting mix of independent shops, there is a tract of no-man’s-land of car parks, yards and indeterminate spaces that presumably were once home to a historic quarter, and really needs to be filled. There are some signs that this might be happening, but it is a large area and there is a long way to go. Hopefully it can be seen as an opportunity to create something genuinely characterful.

Our recent visit took place on a dull day in a disappointing August, when even the best imagination in the world could not make the climate look like the Riviera. However, in general, I think this area works; it doesn’t feel too contrived, and it is certainly a better use of this asset than the decaying wreck that I last saw. It has a more up-beat, and dare I say glossier, atmosphere than the rest of the town; in that, it seems surprisingly successful.

Coming decades will tell whether the area matures gracefully, or is allowed to go downhill again – all such areas tend to have hesitant gestations and can easily end up feeling permanently windswept and lost. It seems as though those in charge in Ipswich do have the right idea – maybe it is not in vain to hope that one day the county town may be a worthy centre for the rest of Suffolk. Cannes-do attitude needed…

Opinion & Thought

Shades of Opinion

Many years ago, my wife bought a rather sleek pair of Italian sunglasses (with only a little encouragement from me). But when she first saw them, a close acquaintance remarked, “Those are a hard person’s sunglasses!” A throwaway comment – perhaps – from someone close enough not to cause offence – but I remember it as an example of rather stark social discrimination.

All dark glasses inhibit eye contact – thus compromising a fundamental part of human interaction; I suppose this is why they supposedly make the wearer look cool (for which read distant). But why some sunglasses might be deemed to be more extreme than others, is intriguing – a matter of fine, perhaps-unconscious differentiation (maybe it’s down to how dark they are?). Behind it lie all sorts of assumptions about a relationship between an inert item and the decision of an individual person to own and wear it – and it is this that has given me lasting curiosity about such issues.

It is not clear, for a start, whether the critique was aimed at the glasses or the wearer. The implications are quite different, since one is an evaluation of an inert item, while the other is a potentially hurtful personal criticism. Probably, it is the interplay between the two that is most meaningful – and the hardest to unpick.

The opportunity did not arise to enquire what supposedly made those glasses ‘hard’, what ‘not hard’ ones might look like – nor what new feelings had been provoked about their owner. As our friend knew, my wife is not remotely a ‘hard’ person, so perhaps it was the perceived incongruity that was her point. In fact, the glasses had been chosen simply because their owner liked them, and felt they suited her face particularly well – though it would be disingenuous notto wonder what unconscious awareness also went into that thinking. Were the effect of what we wear unimportant, no one would ever bother to differentiate: like it or not, sunglasses have become more than just a practical means of shading one’s eyes.

Trying to understand what drives our own tastes can be difficult enough, but it’s even more so with others, whose real motives we can often only guess at. To what extent may even our own aesthetic be influenced by its likely impact on others? How much more so with others? Which is more important – our own preference or the desired reaction? Can we even separate them? How much disapproval are we prepared to tolerate for the sake of personal expression? How much deception for the sake of approval? This little incident neatly brings us back to the confusion that repeatedly arises between social and aesthetic ‘language’, and its significance for both personal relations and one’s freedom innocently to do as one chooses.

The exchange of social messages is a hard-wired human behaviour, which human ingenuity has extended into a vast array of new fields. Even by default, everything we do is laden with social meaning – a projection of how we see ourselves, but also in some eyes, of our social and economic status. The variety and sophistication of our means of expression now far outstrip our sensory abilities to differentiate with confidence. (Those sunglasses were produced by Laura Biagiotti, whose founder was a progressive Italian businesswoman – but I doubt they were widely seen as a feminist political statement….)

Thus, misunderstandings arise all the time and there is little we can do about them, for the reading of our own signals is barely in our own hands. It is exceptionally difficult to know how others really perceive us; the only clue we have lies in their outward reactions, which themselves may or may not be sincere. Those reactions are interpreted in a context supplied by the recipient and if that is faulty, the message taken may be quite different from any intended. Appearances can be deceptive – and it is worth remembering that people may under-play as well as the converse… Yet if we attempt conscious control, we can end up imposing a straitjacket on our own choices simply from fear of giving offence or being misunderstood.

Underpinning this may lie a question of trust. Behind the sunglasses comment was perhaps the belief that stylistic naivety is a virtue, and those who do make conscious choices must therefore be revealing something undesirable. For sure, people who knowingly control their outward messages are perhaps more capable of cynical deception than those with less self-awareness, though it does not mean this is always the case. There are sound instinctual reasons to consider this – though it may also be a function of prevailing social norms: those suspicions are not necessarily well-founded, and the errors and suspicions are not necessarily the same everywhere.

In reality, the message might simply be, “I like this”.

It is profoundly difficult to achieve objectivity about the sensory experiences that influence taste, even though we often experience them as a seemingly absolute phenomenon. I suspect it lies in the way which certain things tickle the senses more vigorously than others, which can have a striking effect on the receptive observer. This may be why certain sounds, sights, smells, tastes and feelings elicit stronger reactions than others; things which somehow ‘speak’ to the recipient, and which people often consciously seek out. One’s appreciation may become more refined over time, but the sensations themselves tend to be fairly consistent between individuals. But importantly, receptivity (whether innate or learned) may differ between people.

An aesthete might be defined as someone who deliberately seeks and learns a refined appreciation of such experiences. The rewards are fundamentally internal (which is why people struggle to express them in words) – but it still inescapably involves differentiating between superior and inferior experiences. Over time, discernment can be learned and refined, and perhaps becomes increasingly important for influencing personal decisions.

A status-seeker might be defined as someone who believes they can boost their social standing by the possession and display of rare, valuable and (sometimes) beautiful things. This too implies differentiation – but also an attitude of superiority towards those who do not have them: that is the whole point. It is competitive in a way connoisseurship is mostly not. Often it conflates quality and quantity and places more emphasis on displays of ownership than quiet appreciation. It is perhaps more prone to poor judgement, since its preoccupation is status and external approval, rather than beauty – and there are many overblown, even grotesque, things that in some eyes, at some times, confer status.

But since beauty often also commands a high price, it is at this point that we enter the minefield where social statement and aesthetic merit overlap.

We are so used to associating sumptuousness and ‘luxury’ with high social standing that it can be very difficult to separate the two in our minds – not that certain aesthetic movements, notably modernism, have not tried to point out that beauty can be found in all sorts of simple and non-exclusive things too.

This tendency may be modified by societal contexts. In strongly hierarchical societies, status-seeking is probably more prevalent than in more egalitarian ones. Consequently, one’s acts may well be judged more for their social implications than their aesthetic. Everyday signs of this abound: “That’s posh” is rather different from “That’s beautiful”.

Due to its competitiveness, social differentiation is also likely to be more polarised. It seeks external validation, whereas truly aesthetic judgements are inherently a graded, individual matter, and therefore harder to dismiss. Experience suggests that in Britain, conversation (and hence attention) habitually revolves around social interpretation rather than expressions of individual taste. It is not necessarily the same everywhere.

Savoir-Vivre is not a particularly status-laden term in France. It can apply to doing even simple things with personal style, grace and skill. La Dolce Vita and La bella figura are similar in Italy. It is striking that we do not really have equivalent terms in English – and what’s more, we tend either to lampoon or envy those who manage to embody them.

In France, chic is an aesthetic – but the British have misappropriated the word to make a social statement. Yet none of those phrases is about having: they are about doing or knowing. Quality of life is not something you buy – it is something you create.

Habitual British life is not so much about artfulness as positioning, status and ambition – and where not that, a dull, indifferent uniformity prevails, that refuses to do more than shrug at anything. There are many, many people whose tastes and habits, judging from their behaviour, are indistinguishable. I fail to believe this is because they really are clones – so what is going on?

Accusations of getting “above oneself” can occur anywhere in society where people are thought to be sticking their heads above the parapet, for snobbery is not by any means the preserve of the especially privileged. For the majority who do not want this, ‘taste’ therefore means belonging to a homogenous mainstream whose only real social reference is not to be a snob. Anyone who acts differently risks certain conclusions being drawn…

Another give-away is transience. Societies that are driven by social advancement need fashions to move quickly, since being ahead of the curve is a powerful differentiator: exclusivity depends on keeping the masses at bay, and one way of doing this is through rapid change so that others have no time, money nor inside knowledge to keep up. Fashion drives conspicuous consumption: those who wish to send the ‘right’ social messages may be more prone to rapid shifts in their (current) tastes as they repeatedly gravitate to whatever is on trend.  In reality, it is mostly all just more of the same: robotic consumption with eyes, ears and other senses firmly closed; only social antennae awake. Things that move this quickly never have a chance to register or bond deeply with their owners. Those who are motivated more by personal style may stick to what they like, whether it is currently fashionable or not. Fashions change; styles do not. In Britain, the ephemeral eddies of fashion dominate the social uniform of those who strive to exhibit their ‘class’ – except amongst the elite, who retain an unchanging style all of their own…

The problem is that aesthetes and social signallers often appear to appreciate the same things, albeit for very different reasons. In an opera-house audience, how many people are present because they genuinely love the music, and how many because the moment’s social kudos demands it? Does that piece of art on the wall reflect a deep sensitivity, or an investment opportunity to impress? If you ask someone whether they like Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony and they reply, “Which conductor?” are they being pretentious or knowledgeable? Superficially, it can be impossible to tell – but I suspect that those who are concerned with status simply don’t experience the joy of genuine appreciation.

The problem awakens when these groups encounter each other: the majority will form views on minorities, be they (supposedly) superior or inferior – and minorities may have reciprocal views about the ignorance, banality or superficiality of the mainstream majority. Judgements and criticism may be inferred even when none is intended – usually based on perceived arrogance, condescension, or elitism (though sometimes also coarseness). There is a risk that people may choose to self-exclude from things they would otherwise appreciate, rather than attract adverse comment or challenge their wider self-image or tribal allegiance.

Groupthink can balkanise attitudes and behaviours – and this can certainly curtail individual liberty, particularly for those who step outside prevailing norms for even the most innocent of reasons. Elites tend to define and possess the means to exclude those they wish, but self-exclusion by others – inverted snobbery – only makes the job easier. Status-seeking makes it worse because it hands one’s personal validation over to others. Much better just to define, and stick to, one’s own terms.

Behind the outward disapprobation, I suspect often lies a sense of personal insecurity, or else a sneaking respect for those whose independence of mind allows them to escape or ignore such pitfalls. True appreciation is the innocent celebration of our good fortune, not sulking about what we don’t have. The error is to believe that such people are somehow super-human, rather than simply ordinary individuals who have made the effort to learn, to know and think for themselves – and in the process perhaps become rather less ordinary.

Opinion & Thought

The Passeggiata Paradox

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

“You two look smart. Big occasion?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sartoria

A Tale of Two Tailors

I have long hoped that somewhere in Italy there must be makers of good quality clothes for people who like to dress well but can’t or won’t pay designer prices. But I had never found any – until recently. Even more than in Britain, there is a hole where the middle-market should be. Online searches reveal low-priced disposable fashion – and then the top end. The difference lies in the proportions of the two: less of the former, and more of the latter – at least when it comes to selling online. Classic style is hardly the dominant concern in modern Italy that the rest of the world seems to believe: as the clip below shows, there are plenty who default to the international uniform of jeans/chinos/cargo pants/trainers (and they are not all tourists…), but equally, one still sees more people who clearly do fare la bella figura, certainly compared with the U.K., where it’s no longer done to dress ‘up’ except at weddings.

Maybe we’re just not seeing the whole range. It would not surprise me if the Italian online clothing market is a mere fraction of its British equivalent – and much of what there is seems aimed at high-spending Americans. Whatever the style, in Italy, sartorial purchases are perhaps too important to be made so lightly…

There are department stores and the like: La Rinascente is perhaps the best known – but generally, they seem nowhere near as dominant as in the UK. People there seem more likely to buy from the many small retailers, certainly if they want anything other than the usual globalised fare.

An acquaintance in the trade confirmed my impressions of the top end: the tailors who make Italian menswear the envy of the world seem quite content to continue charging premium prices and see no need to head downmarket just to please we less affluent punters. That would seem more condescending that it is, were it not for the fact that plenty of Italian men seem prepared to spend amounts on clothes that would bring tears to the eyes of the average British bloke – and to be fair, I see no reason why skilled labour should come cheap just to satisfy the likes of me. But this still leaves a problem for those of us who admire the style without being able to spare £950 for the exquisite Canali jacket I saw in a shop window a few days ago…

I’ve tried every which way to solve this puzzle. There are plenty of British clothiers who buy (and flaunt) their Italian fabrics. Moss Bros, for example, offer fabrics from Cerruti, Zegna, Barberis and more – but the problem comes when they get their scissors out: the items they produce are, well, just dull… They lack the ‘edge’ that makes Italian tailoring work. Sadly, the same largely goes for Tyrwhitt. I suspect that such chain-retailers are hardly buying the best quality to begin with: anything so long as they can add a price-hiking label – and they certainly don’t indulge in the time-consuming niceties that give Italian clothing its distinctive appeal. I suppose they would argue there’s no demand for it in this country. But then, they often offer such items only in sizes that would fit a skinny teenager…

A new discovery was Pini Parma, founded by Thomas Pini, an Italian living in Paris. His ready-to-wear clothes are beautiful, and very good value (though still not cheap) – but once again, they are only offered in a limited size range.

I have tried a couple of the growing number of online made-to-measure services, many being based in India and offering (not?) surprisingly low prices. Despite some ethical concerns, I concluded that I might as well cut out the middlemen and pay the makers direct: at least that way, I have a little knowledge of the source. Some are using Italian fabrics, often from previous seasons or ends of rolls to keep the overheads low, and they do allow the buyer to customise items, such that quasi-Italian style might be achievable. I’ve now bought a few pairs of trousers this way over the years: they have all been well-enough made, the fabrics are indeed good, and – importantly – the fit is pleasing. What’s more, they solve the problem of the somewhat more middle-aged north European size that I need. The styling, however – while acceptable – is clearly not done with an Italian eye…

It is of course true that one generally gets what one pays for; the bargain end of the spectrum tends to have synthetics in the mix, which almost always means garments will lose their shape quickly. Pretty much what you would get from a high-street product. Better to stick to natural fibres – though it is still possible to acquire a decent pair of made-to-measure trousers for not very much more than the price of a better high-street pair – and a few weeks’ wait.

This summer, however, having foregone a holiday for the second year in a row, I decided to push the boat out and see what they could do with a higher-quality fabric from a named Italian mill. An order was duly placed with Studio Suits – a company in Mumbai about which I have seen mixed reviews but have never personally had any issues.

A few days later, before these had arrived, I chanced upon the website of Barocco Italia – which describes itself as a digital platform dedicated to supporting Italian artisans and widening their markets. It is in effect a broker for multiple smaller manufacturers – precisely what I had been seeking for so long. Some of the prices are still pretty eye-watering but surprisingly, less so for their trousers: still more than many would consider paying in the U.K., but not for once, utterly out of the question. We need to remember that we are buying custom-made, hand-sewn craftsmanship here… I decided to live dangerously and so also ordered a pair of trousers through Barocco from Neapolitan tailor Massimo Corrado. Each maker has a biog. on the Barocco website. Having spent time working for the big labels, some years ago, Corrado set up on his own: just what I was looking for. Again, measurements were dispatched, and the order duly confirmed.

Both pairs of trousers cost within a few pounds of each other – about double the price of a better high-street pair – and both arrived within a few days of each other. A good opportunity to see how the respective makers compared.

The Indian pair arrived first. Made from super-110 ivory summer wool (though it feels finer), they are indeed a very good item. The fabric by Reda is excellent, almost crease-free. They arrived soft-packed, and needed a careful press, but fit well, have a decent half-lining, feel robust, and left me wondering whether it would be possible for the Italians to do better…

The Indian pair

The Italian pair arrived a few days later, in a carboard carton and nicely wrapped in tissue. They didn’t need a press. In this case they are in super-150 summer wool, something I have not previously come across in person – amazingly fine. I had also decided to push my limits a little and opt for pale turquoise, which turned out to be more intensely err, Mediterranean than expected. A lovely colour – most definitely not your standard-issue British dull…

The Italian pair

As so often, seeing really is believing: only once you have experienced excellence does the merely good become clear. The quality of the cutting and stitching, the attention to finish, details such as horn buttons, really does set the Italian pair a cut above. These fine fabrics must be difficult to work with – almost like sewing with silk. The Indian pair had some evidence of slight puckering on the leg seams, and the stitching is just not as carefully done – nothing I am not entirely happy to live with – but if we are judging these items on sheer craftsmanship, then it becomes immediately apparent why the Neapolitan tailors have the exceptional reputation that they do. Strangely, from exactly the same measurements, the Italian pair presents a distinctly slimmer and (hopefully) more flattering cut – not such that they don’t fit – snugly – but it’s rather surprising that there is so much difference. I don’t know enough about the cutting processes to understand how this comes about.

When it comes to practicality, time will tell. I don’t really do “best” clothes – every day is good enough to dress well for. These will experience regular if restrained summer use (not painting the house, obviously…). I will wait and see whether that slim Italian cut – which is clearly an integral part of the character – really does go the distance when it comes to wear and seam-stretch. I suspect this may be where the Indian-made pair will have an edge. Made-to-measure is definitely the way forward for those of us who – while hardly of Pavarotti-like proportions – do have difficulty with the increasing prevalence of slim and extra-slim cuts on men’s clothing even in the U.K. (It seems as though many retailers have forgotten that men over 25 still exist, let alone that the national average body size is increasing… And if that’s perplexing here, it is doubly so in Italy where fits tend to be tighter, since there are plenty of older Italian men who are not exactly whippet-like either…)

The customer service – almost ‘e-personal’ – that I received from Barroco was also excellent: they are clearly on a mission – and their English is much better than my Italian. Having enquired about post-Brexit shipping issues, I was informed that in the event of unexpected duties being payable (they weren’t) a refund to the equivalent amount would be forthcoming.

The summer wardrobe emergency has now been well and truly addressed; as I’ve said before, I purchase rarely but (hopefully) well. In due course, I shall go back to Barroco – for ultimately the bona fide article has to win out here – but perhaps be a little more generous with the measurements I provide. When the chips are down, those high reputations exist for a reason…

Food, Opinion & Thought

It’s a scoop!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food, Travel

Baby Biarritz?

After the somewhat underwhelming experience of Nottingham, we were still feeling the urge to be out and about and indulging in a little café life. So, on the spur of the moment, we hit the road last weekend and found it in…. Felixstowe.

Felixstowe is not a place you go to by accident; what’s more, its main reputation as the U.K.’s principal deep-sea container port quite possibly makes it not the kind of place you would expect to go to on purpose either. I had passed quickly through once a number of years ago – but more recently, my hairdresser, who is one of the cooler men I know, had commended it. Coming from a natty dresser who likes a glass of something chilled with his jazz, there had to be a reason why…

And so we discovered Baby Biarritz. Well, perhaps that’s a bit optimistic; Baby Bournemouth more like. I think it was the large villas on the clifftop that put both resorts in mind. It has the same restrained, slightly faded charm of the more tasteful better-known seaside resorts, today infused with a gentle hint of continent.

A little research revealed that Felixstowe indeed had form; it developed as an upmarket Edwardian coastal spa town complete with a steamer service from London – and thus it retains a legacy of rather grand old villas that have mostly withstood the redevelopment pressures of the larger resorts. Biarritz is known as the also-slightly-faded seaside hang-out of deposed European aristocracy: so much more discrete than Saint Tropez… Felixstowe had Wallis Simpson, who lay low here for some months in 1936 in a mansion she considered far too small, awaiting the divorce that would allow her to marry the abdicating Edward VIII. And in 1891, Empress Augusta Viktoria of Germany spent most of the summer here, in between visiting her mother-in-law the Queen in London. I said it had form…

Based on my first visit’s impressions, we had not expected to do more than cruise through on the way somewhere more interesting. But in the event, we felt the urge to park up and look closer. I find myself increasingly attracted to the laid-back atmosphere of the coast; someone once said that it is the only place where the British ever even marginally relax their buttoned-upness. You find slightly less prim, more exotic planting, a greater prevalence of picture windows and balconies than elsewhere – and despite the general coolness of the climate, the coastal light and vistas do lend something to this most understated of countries… But I am still repelled by typical kiss-me-quick bucket-and-spadeness, much preferring the style of French and Italian resorts. We loved Viareggio when we visited – and I have fond memories of Dieppe on the Cote d’Opale – whose northern French climate is not so markedly better than ours. But what they do with their resorts most definitely is…

In Felixstowe’s case, it has the distinct advantage of being the only East Anglian resort to face south. Combined with a sloping cliff that relieves it of the flatness of most of its neighbours, it has a microclimate that the Edwardians exploited to create some appealing coastal gardens, recently restored. On a distinctly cool early August day, it was enough to lend a warmth that could have been somewhere distinctly more balmy…

British seaside resorts have had a rough half-century – ever since the Brits discovered they could go to Spain. But there are signs that some are rising to the challenge, no doubt helped this year by the travel restrictions. While there is not much we can do about the climate except wait for global warming, there are signs that Felixstowe at least is raising its game. Perhaps the very fact that it lies below the radar of the masses helps, as no doubt does the presence a little further up the coast of the much more chichi Suffolk towns of Aldeburgh and Southwold. Unlike those, however, which are very much pebbles, fishing boats and hearty doses of Benjamin Britten with everything, Felixstowe has rather more of that faded Riviera feel; at least enough to make it worth the thirty-five-mile drive, bypassing the distinctly mixed delights of Clacton and Frinton on the way…

The container port at the mouth of the Orwell is dredged to 15 metres, which allows it to accommodate the largest container carriers in the world; it’s the eight busiest port in Europe and nearly half all UK containerised imports pass through it. Facing Rotterdam across the southern North Sea probably helps. As a result, it has excellent transport connections. The southern horizon is dominated by a dozen gantry cranes, which are impressive enough not to be the complete eyesore that one might expect. The coming and going of the huge ships, not to mention the passenger service from nearby Harwich to Hook of Holland, adds interest.

The town itself is a mixed bag of low-end chains but with some more interesting independents sprinkled in; it seems to be making efforts, as I said, to raise its game – the main street is well enough cared for compared with many of its peers. It does have the expected amusement arcades and other trashiness, but the north end of the town is a rather different matter, with the cliff gardens, and the more imposing villas. What’s more, some pleasing eateries have moved in, with more on the way, thus addressing one of the regular downsides of the British seaside experience. That, and a shipload of imported palm trees, made for a pleasing, escapist afternoon, all the more so for being unexpected.

Alba Chiara

The renowned East Anglian brewers Adnams have opened a brasserie on the sea front; another similar venture is due to open soon. But we opted for Alba Chiara, a surprisingly good Italian restaurant, also a new arrival, and set up in an appealing building that had seen a previous life as a chips and burger bar. We got the better deal: anywhere that makes its carbonara with guanciale and pecorino knows what it is doing; nicely seaside-y and without being overly themed, it is a pleasant spot with great sea views. Later, we discovered that the owners are indeed Italian and escapees from one of our favourite restaurants elsewhere in the region. Full marks.

Alba Chiara
Serious espresso at last…

The promenade is worth a stroll; the beach is partly sandy, and a definite rise in the quality of kiosks is visible – several were selling “gelato” from proper scoop-chillers; a big improvement on the traditional lolly-on-a-stick. And then, joy of joys, we found one that was selling Mövenpick ice-cream: quite a rarity anywhere in the U.K., let alone at a lesser-known small resort like this. At the south end of the town, Beach Street Felixstowe is another recent addition: a Camden-style collection of independent traders, all housed in redundant shipping containers. We didn’t get far enough to check this in person, but it looks intriguing.

We rounded the afternoon off with a prowl around some of the cliff-top residential streets: a mix of villa and apartment blocks, several which have been recently renovated and (later research showed) commanding quite steep figures… And a couple of newly built contemporary additions, with some attractive looking balconies.

It’s not unusual to overlook the attractions of one’s near-region. Daily life tends to get in the way of exploring as thoroughly as one should – particularly when prejudice gets in the way. In this case, it was a good decision to take the risk; some of my family roots are in Dorset, and Bournemouth has always been – climatically, topographically and architecturally – my benchmark for the British seaside. But now we know that we at least have Baby Bournemouth, if not Baby Biarritz, much closer at hand…

Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Flânerie in Notts

Promising buildings; shame about the occupants.

Cities, according to Ben Wilson in Metropolis, his impressive new book, are humanity’s greatest invention. The close interaction between many thousands of human lives, and their messy, continuous cycle of decline and renewal are the heartbeat of human civilisation. Cities are where the heights of human sophistication are found – and also the depths of its failure.

A day’s flânerie in Nottingham recently provided ample evidence of this. Almost eighteen months after our last city trip, we finally took another. My wife’s new employer is based in the city, and she needed to show her face; I mostly went along as chauffeur to take the strain of the 270-mile round car trip.  But it also gave me the chance of a day walking a city I last visited as a student in 1986.

The point of flânerie is as much the thinking one does as the shoe leather one wears through – and in about 13km around the city centre, there was plenty of both. It’s about observing city life in all its aspects from a slightly detached, even philosophical viewpoint; no surprise that it’s a French invention rather than a British. My academic interest in urban geography lends itself too, and always provides another reason to investigate and ponder, even (or perhaps especially) the nuts-and-bolts of the city that visitors and shoppers are not supposed to see. Wilson contends, as do I, that the British (and Americans) don’t really ‘do’ urbanism – not in the way continental Europeans do. Their instinct is to head for the cleaner air, quiet and privacy of the suburbs, which size-for-size sprawl far further in this country than in their continental equivalents where higher-density living does not only have extreme social connotations of penthouses and slums that it does here.

All three East Midlands cities (Leicester, Nottingham and Derby) are largely products of the rapid industrial expansion of pre-Victorian market towns through textiles and engineering. All three have signs of the decaying aftermath of their boom times: swathes of red-brick Victoriana of varying quality, areas of post-industrial dereliction, and vast tracts of terraces and bland, early 20th Century suburbs. But they never quite managed to acquire the full, high Victorian civic and cultural grandeur of their larger equivalents further north and west, let alone rival those of the continent, and conventionally are thought of as, well, rather dull.

Sadly, despite my best efforts, I still struggled to like Nottingham; despite its claim to be the principal of the three cities (population 330,000; metropolitan area 770,000), it feels to me like a missed opportunity. Leicester, for my money, is making far more of its modest assets.

Having left my wife at her workplace, I headed for the city centre; it was pleasant to stroll down a wide, tree-lined pavement for the first time in a while, as the city began its day. Unsurprisingly, there have been significant interventions in the time since I was last there; the most successful by far is the introduction of a tram system that both carries large numbers and lends animation to some of the streets. I wonder whether transport planners give consideration to the theatrical potential of their proposed networks; they should. Nottingham has got this right: the trams descent a steep hill before sweeping dramatically around into the main market square, in front of the imposing City Hall.

Trams good; state of the built environment, less so.

The square itself has been given new paving and fountains, and ought to be a grand civic space with few equals in provincial Britain. But it somehow misses the mark. I suppose I need to allow for the impact of Covid: all day long, the city had a slightly under-populated feel. While this made proceedings more comfortable, it also meant the absence of ‘buzz’. There are many empty premises, proportionately far more that in my local town, which seems to have survived lockdown relatively unscathed. The closure of Debenhams department stores has left holes in town centres across the country, but I would still have thought that the larger cities had more resilience to weather the storm than smaller centres. In Nottingham’s case, the boarded-up prime site is a large hole indeed.

A missed opportunity to create a really splendid piazza…

I suppose I shouldn’t completely blame the city either, for the grubbiness. Local authorities in the U.K. have been so starved of funds that I suspect they simply can’t afford the daily cleaning that one sees in, for example, French cities. But it makes a noticeable difference when the dressed stone is not covered in the stains of takeaway food spills and worse…

A greater ‘miss’ is the lack of imaginative planting: at the height of an admittedly cool summer, the flowers should have been at their best – but the square mostly contained a selection of rather unkempt shrubs, only the display of cannas along the balcony of the city hall really making the grade. It could all have so much more flair…

The geographer in me seeks to assess the underlying socio-economic health of places I visit. Again, Covid may well be affecting the balance: the well-healed professional types are the most likely to be safely working from home, while the low-paid and less-fortunate were perhaps more likely still to be frequenting the city in person; it certainly seemed this way in the first part of the day. The numerous police patrols did not augur well, and I witnessed two altercations in the streets that morning…

For all my appreciation of life’s niceties, I am not an elitist. While the presence of a ‘top end’ is perhaps the most visible indicator of a city’s economic health, I dislike the exclusivity that it can create; cities need to be a mix, and good quality environments and opportunities should be available to all. But it is a two-way street: I am equally bemused by Britons’ inability to ‘inhabit’ their cities in the way the continentals do. This is not a product of wealth, so much as civic attitudes – and for all there were children splashing in the fountains, sadly I saw many people who seemed not to be treating their city centre particularly well, let alone with joy or pride. For many Britons, the city is a purely functional thing…

Once again, I suspect that this is partly a matter bigger than individuals: opportunity and conditioning matter. Like nearly every British town and city, Nottingham has become little more than a huge retail machine for the benefit of the same mainstream chains found across the nation. Meanwhile, I look for the presence and variety of independent shops; in most of the city centre, there were few of note. Nottingham has a reputation as a great shopping destination; I suppose it might be – if your idea of ‘great’ is large branches of all the predictable chains and fast-food outlets that appear everywhere… Expectations and perspectives also matter; the sense of the city as a proud, civic entity seems lacking.

One of the few really distinctive shops that I found in Notts

Feeling rather dejected, I pushed on into the more peripheral parts of the centre, and here, things started to improve somewhat. Having done my homework, I knew where I was going – but the experience was still underwhelming: the billed “bijou cafés” in the city’s finest arcade, where I had planned to find an espresso, turned out to be a branch of Patisserie Valerie; alright as far as it goes – but hardly outstanding or distinctive. Again, it all depends on expectations – and mine have been tuned over the years by the superior experience of too many continental cities…

The Lace Market area is somewhat more successful: tucked away in the older part of the centre, it is home to the National Justice Museum, slightly more choice shops, numerous professional services and buildings of indeterminate use, some rather fine. There I found a few more interesting premises, not to mention a rather different type of inhabitant – but still relatively few of the really interesting outlets one might expect in a large city. Precious little, for example, by way of independent food or clothes shops – or even evidence of where they might previously have been.

The high end?

In the early Seventies, Nottingham received some of this country’s earliest indoor shopping malls: the Victoria Centre, built on the remains of one of the country’s most atmospheric Victorian railway stations – but it is the other, the Broadmarsh Centre – which has recently made headlines. A vast, brutalist bunker between the remaining railway station and the centre, pre-pandemic it was being bulldozed – when the developer went bankrupt. It has been left, part-replaced, part ruin and work has only just resumed.

Out with the old, in with the new… But is it much of an improvement?
Victoria: An unhappy marriage. The clock tower is all that remains of a fine railway station.

The whole area to the south of the centre is being rebuilt; the billboards suggest a much-improved environment will result, but still dominated by large-scale retail and commerce. The addition of a new central library and bus station is laudable – but whether this new generation of comprehensive redevelopment will prove superior to its predecessor, only time will tell. Trying again to be charitable, we perhaps take too much for granted in a long storyline here: the lifetimes of city buildings are measured in decades or centuries. We are only just getting round to replacing the disasters that too often were thrown up in the Sixties and Seventies just to fill the bomb sites created in the Forties… Many cities right across Europe suffered the same fate – though the success of the recovery was most certainly not the same everywhere…

Full marks for consultation.

Post-Covid, there is a debate in the city as to whether more retail capacity is still the best use for this site. The outcome is awaited, with a new city park having been mooted as an alternative. Again, time will tell, but loosening the dominance of big retail in the urban mix need not inevitably be a bad thing.

I eventually came upon two areas that proved the point: Hockley lies to the east of the city centre and is described as the city’s bohemian quarter. Well, I’ve certainly seen substantially more bohemian than this, but the narrow streets of this area are nonetheless occupied by precisely the independent shops and cafes that are so conspicuously absent in the rest of the city centre – and the vitality of the area did indeed prove the point.

Hockley

After lunch with my wife’s new colleagues, I headed for the second: Nottingham Contemporary, an externally unprepossessing but nonetheless internally convincing modern art gallery. A pleasant hour was spent mooching around its three exhibitions and sitting out a passing rainstorm with a hot chocolate in an attractive (and once again in-house) café. I dwelt on the fact that five decades ago, express trains ran through this very spot on their way into the now-vanished Victoria Station: another building that the city would have done well to keep, rather than replace with a concrete bunker. Hopefully, we know better these days. One of my fellow rain-refugees was thinking the same, and a good conversation followed…

Nottingham Contemporary

As I said, I wanted to like Nottingham; there is little that pleases me more than time spent in a lively and attractive city centre. But even allowing for Covid, Nottingham just isn’t there yet. There is a lot of redevelopment going on – but even more needed to the fabric of the historic city, much of which is still rather shabby compared with that in other city centres. Maybe it will be better in another decade, but what has taken so long? I can accept that Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow’s needs were more pressing – but there is in any case, only so much that physical renewal can do, no matter how much money is available. What is needed is ambition, imagination and flair – things that can lift rather predictable urban renewal into a genuinely vibrant and characterful place. It’s needed not only from the city leaders, but also by the regular citizens who populate the city day in day out. The clone-shopping experience does not encourage this, but nor does the willing complicity of the junk-food-and-trainers majority, which the architects’ drawings never show.

About as chi-chi as Nottingham gets…

It wouldn’t be fair to compare Nottingham with the greatest European cities – but I have seen plenty of second-division equivalents on the continent that far outstrip it – Montpellier in France, for example is a similar size, even if its enviable climate gives it a head start… The problem, I suspect, is that really successful cities are cosmopolitan and even sophisticated – things the British, instinctively, as a nation are not.

Even at their Victorian height, British cities were about imperial bombast – but also mass squalor, the legacy of which is still with us. Nottingham is trying – but I’m still not sure most British cities really ‘get’ vibrant, spontaneous, democratic urbanism any more than they ever did, which is why so many of their more self-conscious efforts never really come off. It will be interesting to see what future visits reveal…

Opinion & Thought

Filling the void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sartoria

From Italy with Love…

Having sung the praises of online shopping in my previous post, I was immediately reminded of its limitations when a repeatedly used clothing retailer in Italy informed me that it has suspended shipments to the U.K. due to Brexit.

As I have rather neglectfully managed to reach a point where several necessary renewals have coincided, the search for new sources has been more focused than usual. I refuse to give up: the dearth of easy solutions to the problem of what I consider the lack of appealing men’s clothing in the U.K. is not about to make me part with my hard-earned for things I do not really like simply because they are readily available. And that especially holds true when significant outlay may be involved.

When it comes to browsing (even virtually) in Italy the supply problem rapidly disappears (as would my savings, if I let them), only to be replaced by a partly cultural one: despite my appreciation of the work of their fine tailors, I do struggle to get my inhibited English mind round the kind of figures that Italian men seem willing to spend on their clothes. While the difference between rubbish and well-made items is readily apparent to anyone who cares to look, I retain a suspicion that the law of diminishing marginal returns must set in after a point. How much better than a £300 jacket can a £2000 one really be? Beautiful materials and superb craftsmanship do not (and should not) come cheap – but even so, there are surely limits to what is justifiable purely on grounds of superior quality. I found myself wondering just how much of a premium some of those renowned brands command just for their name…

Or am I just showing my ignorance? It is certainly true that having pushed upscale somewhat in the past, it is much harder to accept going back down it again – so maybe there is more to it than meets the eye. On the other hand, is it wise – or even necessary – to keep trading up the ladder of connoisseurship? At what point do we reach good enough? And of course, even were one willing, the capacity of one’s wallet does present a constraint that no amount of canny purchasing can entirely wish away…

So when my searches landed me again at the virtual door of a relatively local business, I took the opportunity to investigate a small retailer whose website I had discovered at around the time of the first U.K. lockdown and whose shop I have been intending to visit ever since. The Italian Shirt Shop is situated in a rather nice ‘independent’ shopping street not far from the centre of Ipswich. As restrictions have now eased, I recently took the opportunity to make the thirty-mile trip and do some in-person shopping for a change.

‘Antonio Bellini’ is on a mission to bring Italian style to the British Male – and he appreciates that cost can be an issue. His shop is lovely: a transplanted version of what every small independent Italian menswear shop still is – but without the hefty price tags. Antonio has arrangements with manufacturers in Italy that allows him to retail his own brand at something much more approachable, while still retaining a very pleasing quality. His customer service, too, is exactly what one would hope for from such a shop. He has now diversified beyond shirts – and is certainly a lot more visitable than anything south of the Alps right now.

At present, he only accepts one customer in his shop at a time – which was not a problem on a quiet Thursday morning – and so I had his undivided attention in helping me identify what was admittedly a limited number of items at the more generous end of his size range. This, he says, is a perennial problem with Italian producers, who are widely uninterested in broadening their appeal simply to address the mere inconvenience that customers everywhere are getting larger. He also confirmed that a huge proportion, perhaps 75%, of those vast prices can simply be a premium for having the ‘right’ label. There is much better value to be found elsewhere – including in Ipswich.

I came away with the couple of summer shirts that I had been seeking (and a rather dinky jacket that I hadn’t) – all for a price that would barely cover one shirt from some higher-profile sources. Time will be the ultimate test, of course, but I know a decent fabric when I feel one.

I stand by my comments from the previous post, concerning the opportunities afforded by supporting small businesses online, but I do not think it is incompatible with supporting in person local ones where they do exist. And it is certainly a very much more enjoyable experience to spend time in a real treasure chest like Antonio’s shop, than the virtual equivalent. You can’t stroke all those lovely fabrics online, for a start. Let alone chat with someone who knowledgeably shares your enthusiasm.

My brief splurge is now done – summer shirts and properly weatherproof shoes are once again to hand, their predecessors having been worn to destruction over the past five or ten years. (The shoes might have lasted longer had it been possible to reach a repairer more easily in the past eighteen covid-restricted months…) A couple of items ordered online are yet to arrive – but here’s to one British gent (for despite the name he is British) who has had the nerve to stick his neck out and retail what he loves. Long may he continue to do so – I shall be going back.

Shop photos taken from Antonio’s website with his permission. The views in this post are entirely my own.

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

Consume – lovingly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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