I don’t often cross-blog from my professional activities, but this event warrants it: my book The Great Exception: why teaching is a profession like no other is now on sale. It’s quite a moment after more than three years’ work.
Published by John Catt Educational, it is of most relevance to those in the education world – but no reason why curious others shouldn’t read it too! It also makes an excellent door-stop.
My thanks to John Catt for doing a great job with it.
A few months ago, I purchased Hugo Jacomet’s new book The Italian Gentleman. It is a celebration of Italian bespoke tailoring, and a rich treasure-trove into which to dip. But as becomes clear on Jacomet’s blog The Parisian Gentleman, this is a rich man’s game. When a pair of shoes is discounted to €2000 and a shirt to €300, it’s time to admit when one is seriously out of one’s league. But the limits of one’s means do not necessarily dim the enthusiasm of those so-inclined for sartorial excellence. It is necessary to find other ways.
Last spring, I dipped a curious toe into the world of made-to-measure clothes, and now having had three items made, it is clear to me that the benefits of properly-fitting clothes are not illusory. That is all the more so when one is something less than a standard, idealised shape. It’s not only that they look better – they feel better too.
My first venture was with Studio Suits, an online tailor based in Mumbai, who appear to offer extraordinarily good value clothing. We all know how they manage it. However, the cotton shirt that I ordered was something of a disappointment, not because of the tailoring but on account of the rather cheap cotton used, which has proved impossible to keep even remotely un-crumpled. Sometime later, I discovered Camiceria Olga in Milan, and had a much more satisfactory shirt made by them, reviewed in the early days of this blog.
However, recently the issue has been trousers. There are several Italian tailors who offer an online service, though their prices (excluding sales) begin at a couple of hundred pounds – more than I really want to pay for an item that I tend to wear out rather quickly. And to be honest, their fabrics are rather uninspiringly conservative in design, if not quality. So I decided to look again at Studio Suits. I had noticed that they offer ‘bespoke’ manufacture in a good range of Italian fabrics from around £100. Hopefully that solves the fabric quality issue. In fact, their range starts at nearer £60 – but I decided on an attractive wool-silk mix (‘carat’), with lining and side adjusters as extra. I was able to specify the style of the trousers (double pleats and turn-ups being my preference) and input numerous measurements. I’m not sure that their claim to be ‘bespoke’ is accurate: given that there is no intermediate fitting involved, I think it comes nearer made-to measure. However, one can split hairs…
The trousers arrived this week, around three weeks after ordering. Initial impressions were rather disappointing: as with the shirt, the item arrived looking very crumpled, and it is not really clear why this should be so. However, the fabric is good, and after a careful press with the steam iron, things looked up significantly. The fit of these trousers is very good – certainly good enough to convince me that made-to-measure is worth the effort, and the general impression is much more satisfactory than the earlier shirt. Interestingly, the trousers have a more ‘homespun’ feel to them that the ultra-pressed products of the bulk manufacturers – perhaps not surprising when they are 70% hand-made, and quite endearing when you get used to it.
The tailoring is again of good quality too, with careful stitching and ample spare fabric provided on the inner seams.
The ethics of buying from India are of course somewhat debatable – but it is probably no different from where many high-street clothes come from in any case – and I am at least cutting out the middle men. I do wish the Studio Suits website allowed closer inspection of the fabrics than it sometimes does – it is a little inconsistent on this score – and they really need to sort out the state in which their goods arrive at the customer.
£100 is not a cheap pair of trousers by my (or high street) standards – but for a hand-made, non-synthetic item in a fine fabric, it is something of a bargain. While one can buy 50% acrylic ‘wool blend’ trousers for half the price or less, even the high street chains are charging £80 – £100 for a pair of 100% wool tailored trousers, and the slightly more select end of the spectrum goes higher than that.
I know which I think is the better deal – even if I do have to forgo the Italian tailoring.
I know: a post about Brexit and a Scottish folk band is going to have most clicking straight on past – but that is my point: hear me out!
There is much in modern life not to like; that ultimately seems to be what the Brexit vote was about. I am not however going to enter the fray here as to whether it is right or not – but it is unarguable that it has provoked a national debate in this country the like of which I have never seen. After several decades of somnolence, the conspiracy of ‘events’ has finally woken the British up to what their nation(s) have become – and plenty (on both sides of the debate) don’t much like it.
I would argue, however, that the reasons for this have little to do with our membership of the European Union, so much as the free reign that the forces of globalised capitalism have been given in this country – see the previous post. It is that which has really generated the crisis of identity currently being experienced in Britain. We have willingly been fed a diet of mass-produced, commercialised everything, whose main purpose is to hoover up as much of the nation’s disposable income as possible, as efficiently as possible. That means products that are cheap to produce and so bland that they will offend no one. As a result, they also come completely devoid of any cultural references that might make them distinctive – and this is no less so with the music industry as any other.
So it saddens me that for all the bashing many have been giving our country, perhaps justifiably, there are plenty of things of which we can still be proud – but which are regularly overlooked or ignored by the national mainstream. The fact that we have a vibrant folk and roots music scene is one – our musicians are in demand around the world within their own relatively small pool. Breabach, the subject of this piece are off to Australia next month, and regularly play across North America and continental Europe, where people seem to appreciate our native music if anything more than many British do. Possibly the strongest elements of a varied tradition are found in Scotland and Ireland – but while the Union endures, I am going to claim part of them for myself. In particular, the Scottish music scene has benefitted from the cultural confidence that devolution has brought, and a generation of young musicians has grown up shamelessly bringing new takes to something anciently British.
Breabach may well look like a traditional pipe-and-fiddle band – but that is not the half of it. Their music is almost entirely original, for all that they introduce traditional motifs and instrumentation. They are superb musicians, as tight as anything you would expect to find from people with a far higher profile. You won’t find much more than a hint of strict traditional music here – much of it ranges from a ‘wall of sound’ associated with much more contemporary genres, to lengthy pieces that verge on the symphonic on occasions. They are unafraid of sophisticated, syncopated rhythms, in amongst which they weave elements of Gaelic song and traditional tunes as well as many of their own compositions. There is even step-dance, used on an amplified ‘floor’ in part for its percussive quality.
They played to an appreciative full house and standing ovation in The King’s Place in London on Thursday, the first of a few warm-up gigs for the slack period between the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow and their Australian tour. There is little affectation and few huge egos about these people: for a first encore, they went completely unplugged on a Gaelic song – and in the interval and after the concert, they were out front-of-house in good folk style, chatting with their audience and selling the inevitable CDs themselves.
The Scottish scene is but one part of a lively music genre that is affirmative and authentic. It exists not in a few large stadia for the financial gain of large international promoters, but in small venues the length and breadth of the nation, where it is a real and distinctive part of community and national identity. Breabach, however, show that it can also put its best clothes on and become something of much more contemporary relevance – a mark of a newly-emboldened national consciousness – in a way that is entirely of the present, even as it pays its due respects to the long and ancient history of these isles. Those in search of genuine Britain for a dose of national pride could do a lot worse than listen in.
‘Lovely’ is probably not a word that goes with ‘Essex’ in many British people’s minds. And yet the county does have its unspoiled parts, even if they take some hunting out. I am fortunate enough to live in one – a small medieval town surrounded by largely open countryside. But in the next ten years, much will go under the bulldozer, as we are currently facing several large schemes for mass housing development, to say nothing of a waste incinerator up-wind of the town, and a major new road scheme… Such is the consequence of living in what, we are told, is the most rapidly–growing area of Britain. And nothing – but nothing – must come in the way of economic ‘progress’. To object is just to be a NIMBY.
A recent article in The Guardian had the temerity to question the popular ‘wisdom’ that there is a housing shortage in Britain; the problem, it said is more the degree of speculation that goes on in the housing market pushing prices out of people’s reach. A neighbour added that the ease of access to credit was adding to the problem, as people see houses as investments rather than residences. Recently I noticed the sale of some apartments in a neighbouring village specified as for sale “to investors only”.
It is becoming clear that far from bringing the virtues of quality and freedom of choice, this country’s economic model is socially an utter disaster. As I mentioned in the previous post, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that business activity here is completely out of control. It seems that the only values that count for anything are monetary ones – and that anything at all is worth sacrificing for a quick buck. Well, I suppose that is the natural instinct: it is what companies do. But we have also had decades where successive governments have failed to do what governments are for – and that is regulate such activity in order to retain a reasonably equitable balance for all.
Instead, they have allowed the psychology of the market to flood into every nook and cranny of national life: if it doesn’t make money, it is not worth doing. That is also the message, this week, of the government minister who called for any degree-level subject that does not have immediate economic benefit to lose its financial support.
At this stage in Britain’s story, I fail to see how anyone cannot notice that such narrow, economised thinking is cutting deep into the nation’s fabric. Hospitals can no longer treat people because their funds need to be funnelled into paying back private contractors; schools are making staff redundant rather than cut the increasingly large salaries of the academy chain heads. (The one who did that to me was well into six-figure salary level himself – and I don’t think cutting that was on his money-saving agenda: the loss of my livelihood (and mental health) was just collateral damage in the preserving of his – that’s how this system works).
And we are seeing yet further tracts of our relatively scare land mass torn up and turned into mass housing of the most banal and over-priced sort – at the same time as the executives of the companies doing it reap multi-million pound bonuses. What’s more, they show utter disregard for the social and environmental consequences of their activities: most of the new developments round here will be utterly dependent on car use – and will be completely devoid of any social infrastructure. Those things just eat into profit margins.
It is not good for democracy either: the erosion of public space by private owners continues apace – and we are finding that even when the planning process (itself not above question) rejects an application, it is only a matter of months before it is resubmitted and the fight to object begins all over again. There is only so much that local residents can do in their spare time: it is not an equal fight.
What we have here is a system that will stop at nothing in the chase for profits. One wonders where it will end: is it realistic to imagine the big construction companies one day winding themselves down on the grounds that they have built all the houses that will be needed? They need to build to justify themselves – and of their own volition, while there is money to be made, they will never stop. But in that sense they are only typical of a system that has got its priorities utterly wrong.
The monotone from the politicians continues: this country needs to be more competitive, needs more business acumen, and more entrepreneurs. It is true, any country needs a productive economy – but at any price? And yet, far from enhancing lives further such people are now the prime movers in destroying much of what makes life liveable for many; the only lives that really improve are their own. The story of my own area is only that which is happening the length and breadth of the nation; being in the South-East it may be rather more pressurised – but that is all.
As one local observed recently during a discussion on these things, “Isn’t capitalism fun?” We are getting to the point where it is no longer the preserve of the loony extremes to believe that a complete re-think is rapidly becoming necessary.
As a child of the Sixties and Seventies, I have never shared the view that public utilities are a bad thing. I remember visiting the local SWEB electricity board showroom when we needed to buy new appliances, or to pay a bill (those were the days…) – and to a lesser extent, there was a consciousness that the basics of life were provided for all by a caring, social State. Even the much-maligned British Rail was somehow a benign entity, cash-starved and declining though it was. SWEB too may have been a bit dowdy, but even to a six year old, it somehow exuded a benevolence that a private company never can.
I was in my twenties when most of the privatisations took place. Even then, I had my doubts: why should the civic assets of our nation be placed in the hands of a few, for their private profit? Macmillan’s observation about selling the family silver was correct. And how can a private company, with shareholders to keep happy and a profit to make, deliver basic needs more cheaply and more equitably than the State?
We now know the answer: it can’t. Deregulated markets have come to mean one thing only: an opportunity for a small group of greedy individuals to enrich themselves at everybody else’s expense. It is no coincidence that the wealth of the richest has hit the stratosphere during this period. Deregulation primarily gave carte blanche to those people to devise ever more devious ways of meeting short-term shareholder expectations – thereby releasing huge rewards for themselves. And we won’t even begin on corporate tax avoidance.
A lot of this has happened below the radar: who knew, for instance, that almost all of the water utility companies are now de-listed and owned by private equity funds and the like? No opportunities there for the small investor. Then we have the executives of Persimmon reaping huge bonuses on the back of state-subsidised housing construction – and Carillion’s bosses brazenly altering rules to ensure their bonuses could not be clawed back even in the event of company failure. How much more evidence is needed? And yet there are those in government who still hesitate “to interfere in the affairs of the business sector”… The fact is, the private sector exists, as it always did, to make a profit for the few, not serve the many. It will not do anything that compromises its short-term profitability – and it will do anything that enhances it – immoral or illegal included – if it thinks it can get away with it. The myth of the customer being king has been revealed for the sham it always was, and the only surprise (to me at least) is that so many knowledgeable people apparently believed it would be otherwise.
For four decades, Britons have been fed the ‘wisdom’ that the private sector is more dynamic and more efficient than the state. A whole string of failures is now showing this not to be true, and as Polly Toynbee suggested in The Guardian recently, Britain is now lumbered with a toxic brand of unaccountable, amoral capitalism that will probably take more decades to rectify – or preferably dismantle. Public-private profit may be one thing, but working against the public interest is another. My impression is that things have not gone as far on the continent; few countries followed Britain down the wholesale-privatisation route – and it is now evident how wise that was.
Yet there are two elements of this disaster that are not receiving much coverage.
Firstly, many of the rogue individuals who are responsible for this wholesale malpractice are the products of one toxic generation, whose genesis dates back to a certain Prime Minister whose policies encouraged them: the almost-forgotten Yuppies of the Eighties and Nineties, the Nick Leesom clones who never got caught – but who still made their fortunes gaming the post- Big Bang deregulated City. They nearly ruined the system then; in the meantime they have gone on to become the captains of industry and are still lining their pockets – only from positions of much greater power and influence. The sooner they are brought to book, the better.
The second is the cultural change that has accompanied privatisation. I sense that the commercialised private sector extends much further into people’s lives – and the wider cultural institutions of this country – than has been permitted elsewhere. As a non-TV viewer, it is most evident to me on the few occasions I do see broadcast media – the level of commercial intrusion that people seem to tolerate shocks me. It seems there is no aspect of British life that the private sector has not been able to turn into an opportunity to make a quick buck. The homogenising effect on the population has, I believe been huge: people’s lives have increasingly become mere conveyor belts of pre-packaged, standardised offerings, from the homes they live in to the clothes they wear, from the holidays they take to the food they eat, to the music they hear – everything revolves around that which it is profitable for commerce to purvey. There is a huge difference between a citizen and a consumer; in Britain, we only have the latter.
It can be argued that people have choice – but I think the wider corporate case masks the truth here: it is the M&S white-knickers argument again. People will buy what they are given if it’s all there is, and the hassle of trying to go against the flow is too much for most. Most companies attempt to homogenise their markets around mass-producible products. And they are becoming ever more sophisticated – and ever more disingenuous – in persuading people that that is what they really wanted all along. Orwell’s Big Brother has turned out to be a private corporation.
It has gone too far when nearly all elements of our culture are now determined by their profit margins. There is, in my view, no case whatsoever for running schools and hospitals as even quasi-commercial operations. Quite apart from the inefficiencies that are the same as elsewhere, management has been diverted from providing basic services into meeting contractual targets; interpersonal relations on which such organisations run have been severely damaged by the target-chasing that results. It is also fundamentally morally wrong for profit to be made from basic needs, let alone misfortune. It amounts to the monopoly of the helpless.
Cornerstones of our culture, such as the intellectual independence of our universities are being subordinated to their need to run as increasingly rapacious businesses; this cannot be right. Unrestrained business appeals most basely to people’s greed; in that sense it is also responsible for high levels of debt, the psychological damage of over-consumption and the environmental disaster that services it.
I would also include wider cultural matters in this: is there really a need for art galleries, museums and even charities to be made to operate as profit centres? Why should welfare targets be determined by how much money they save, rather than disburse? Their benefit is of an entirely different nature, and in difficult times most of all, it should not be denied those who cannot make them pay. Contractual constraints and that same profit motive have made it impossible for ordinary people to do the obvious things in situations where the personal touch ‘going beyond the necessary’ makes all the difference.
Forty years on, it is inescapable that the promised Eden of high-quality, privately provided services for all has proved to be an illusion. It was always going to, not least because in the eyes of profit-seekers, the most vulnerable either merit only the most pared-back of loss-leader provision – or they simply don’t even exist. One might even consider it only marginally more ethical for the private sector to offer every last luxury to the wealthy – and then fleece them utterly for it. This country is now run as a private racket for the benefit of a small number of greedy, amoral people – and they need to be stopped.
I have great doubts that any politician will have the courage to tackle this; even Corbyn will probably find tackling the vested interests a lot more difficult than he expects, assuming he ever wins power to begin with. And even if we start making amends now, the cultural damage will take decades and generations to put right. It is one thing to have a market economy – but we now have a market society. It was never much of a ‘partnership’ to begin with – more of a mugging.
Far more people have heard Julie Fowlis sing than are probably aware of the fact. Her ‘big moment’ to date was being commissioned to produce some of the backing music for Disney’s “Brave”; she also featured on BBC4’s well-received Transatlantic Sessions and on Jools Holland’s show in 2007. Despite that, she remains largely unknown outside the world of traditional music – which is probably just how she likes it – a more unaffected performer you could not find.
She sings almost entirely in Gaelic, having grown up on the Outer Hebridean island of North Uist. She is perhaps the first such singer to come close to breaking through into a more mainstream audience, despite the comments above. There was a moment a few years ago when it briefly seemed that she might be tempted to cross over into the commercial mainstream – and then she backed off again. She has resolutely resisted the temptation to move into English, which could no doubt secure her that much wider audience, but for her followers, it is her contemporary but sympathetic interpretation of Gaelic song that is part of her charm – which remains resolutely alien to anglophone ears for all that it is an indigenous British language.
Judging by the tour schedule, she and her band had probably started out from home near Inverness earlier in the same day in order to do this performance; indeed Eamonn Doorley observed that there were some ‘oblique brains’ on stage as a result – not that it showed.
The two 45minute sets were as close to note-perfect as makes no odds, though admittedly a fair proportion was long-established music, which made it no less welcome. Interspersed discretely with this were some items from her newly-released fifth album Alterum, which does include a couple of deviations from the previous norm – one the Annie Briggs song Go Your Way, and another a beautiful Galician song Camarinas – sung in a mixture of Galician and Gaelic, which in my view would be a more successful avenue to explore than English revival folk song.
Fowlis has an amazingly dynamic voice, ranging from the ethereal to the rhythmic, slightly hard-edged tones needed for the Puirt à beul a form of mouth-music of light-hearted, bawdy or nonsensical lyrics that were used for dancing, in the absence of formal instruments. It demands immensely tight vocal control and dynamic, and to intersperse it with whistle-playing as Julie Fowlis does requires superb breath control. The physical demands of the songs were often visible on stage.
Fowlis’ band comprises first-rate musicians – her husband Eamonn Dooley on bouzouki and Tony Byrne on guitar, outstanding Scottish fiddle-player Duncan Chisholm, and double-bassist Ewen Vernal. They play a tidy set of tunes too, often modern compositions in the traditional idiom. Fowlis herself is classically trained, playing not only whistles, but flute, oboe, cor anglais and accordion and both great and small Scottish pipes. It was much to our delight that she returned to the stage to finish the encore set on the Highland Pipes.
As a ‘way in’ to the world of traditional music, Julie Fowlis is superb. While she retains authenticity and respect for her roots, both her treatment of it and her persona have done much to appeal to a wider audience. I particularly like the fact that her success (she is also a T.V. presenter in Scotland and Ireland) has had no discernible effect on her personality, and she is still a modest, even slightly retiring presence on stage. Her music is greatly suited to intimate venues such as Hall One at the King’s Place, and the Sam Wannamaker Theatre where we saw her couple of years ago.
And I also like the fact that the entire team (including the sound engineer who had risen at 4am to fly from Inverness for the gig) were Scottish or Irish – evidence right in the heart of the capital that there is a whole world of ‘Celtic fringe’ culture going on out there in a part of the world, stretching from the Hebrides through Ireland to Brittany and Galicia, of which London is usually barely conscious.
Attitudes towards architecture and design are, I think, influenced by the differing physical and social environments that give them birth. I’ve always looked to Switzerland, Italy, Australia and Japan for my interiors inspiration, places that aren’t afraid of the radically modern. There are some very good modern British architects, too, perhaps in a slightly gentler way – the work of David Chipperfield and John Pawson always inspires – though as always in Britain, modernism – the slightly-pejoratively named ‘International Style’ – seems to come with overtones of wealth and exclusivity.
One place that has remained somewhat below the radar in respect to modern architecture , is the Low Countries. I think it is fair to say that in Britain, Belgium in particular has always had a rather non-identity. But there is a large amount of excellent, distinctive design being produced in both Belgium and The Netherlands, of whom some of the fashion designers such as Dries van Noten and Anne Demeulmeester are higher profile. But the same spirit of under-stated and crisp minimalism is increasingly to be found in the work of those countries’ architects too, with practices such as Minus and Klaarchitectuur gaining a growing reputation, as well as a number of smaller practices such as Frederic Kielmoes. It has had some success in diverting me for the time being at least, from my more usual diet.
On reflection, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that a culture that produced medieval Flemish gothic is good at architecture generally – though I must admit the old stuff always used to feel rather dour and overblown to me, until I learned to like it by spending time in Lille.
What is interesting about the Flemish take on modernism is that it seems closely suited to the quiet, unassuming landscapes, often post-industrial towns and pale light in which it is seen. Perhaps that is why its use of stark contrast works so well, with both very blond and very dark woods, slubby greys, inky blacks and just the very occasional ‘pop’ of saturated colour giving a little more support than is usual to the pure, slightly bluish-whites. It is rather different from the all-white of more ‘traditional’ modernism, which relies to a greater extent on strong natural light and a dry climate for maximum impact. Here, the restricted palette allows colour to come from either possessions or carefully-framed views of the exterior, which become almost art-works in their own right when seen against the monochrome interiors.
It is a striking and almost austere aesthetic, with overtones of the Old Masters as well as a nod to mid-century style in the simple, natural material chosen for the signature furniture pieces. It has an ethereal edge to it, too, which sits especially nicely within the region’s coastlines of dunes, grasses and big skies. It demonstrates, too, that modernism does not require glamorous surroundings in order to work.
As with many cultural matters, there is a visible continuity with the work of the previously-mentioned British architects such as Chipperfield and Pawson, though I rather like the fact that the Flemish work is perhaps a degree more sombre than the more forgiving British versions. In addition to the buildings themselves, the Belgians have a number of companies producing crisp, high-tech lighting and other fixtures, with companies like Modular and Deltalight being in the avant-guard.
What is more, there are some fascinating juxtapositions of ancient and modern taking place, which seems to work particularly well with the slightly gloomy traditional architecture of the region.
So there we are: a ‘school’ of architecture worth watching, and one that might have things to lend to Britain’s aesthetic as well. I suspect that many will consider such pure interiors impossible to live normal lives in – but I’m not so sure. There is nothing here that says ordinary, messy life should not go on within: it’s just a matter of how the buildings are organised to keep it contained.
And a few more things to add to the growing list of notable Belgians.