Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Choice architecture

salt flat

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’  Anon

Isaac Asimov wrote a 1957 short story called The Last Trump. Come the Last Judgement, the dead rise as expected, and the topography of the earth disappears, leaving just a featureless plain. People no longer die – but they no longer grow or develop either. Those finding themselves there gradually realise that they are not in Heaven but the other place… Hell is utter, unremitting blandness.

I’ve written before about the judgements people make in their lives; maybe it’s professional instinct, but I remain fascinated (and sometimes horrified) by why people decide as they do. I am interested in what Nobel Prize-winner Richard Thaler describes as ‘choice architecture’ – or the way in which the decisions people make are framed, either by themselves or others.

I get the impression that being wrapped up in their own little worlds, many people don’t look particularly closely at their fellow humans; or maybe they do, and are just concealing their dislike at what they see. On the contrary, being nosy, I can’t help looking hard: at what people are putting on the supermarket conveyor belt, at what they are choosing to wear, where they choose to go, how they choose to spend their time. Maybe I attribute too much to small actions, and I do respect people’s right to do as they see fit – but that also applies to my ‘right’ to draw conclusions as well. Like Thaler’s, my interest is nothing more than a benign concern for the health of our society and democracy, and in some ways the little things speak volumes.

We could head here in the direction of Brexit, about what seems to be so fundamentally different in the world-views of Remainers and Leavers – we both inhabit the same planet, and yet from some of the conversations I have actively sought out this year for ‘research’ purposes, one can be left with the impression that the two groups inhabit parallel but mutually exclusive universes.

I have encountered something of the same at the local scale: having become involved in moves to support the small, historic town where I live, I have tried to advocate a forward-looking stance for maintaining its future viability. While there were some voices of support, I have encountered what I suppose is ‘typical small-town conservatism’: people do not want anything to change, or to be different from an imagined past – even when it is cogently argued that the ‘continuity’ they support is in historic terms an illusion. It is no good arguing that past eras were bold in their time; neither does it wash to argue that a lot of supposed historicism is actually fake: medieval UPVC doubled-glazed leaded lights, anyone?

As I said at the start, one must respect people’s democratic right to hold their views: but whether that implies that all views are of equal validity is another matter, particularly when some can be shown to be inconsistent or based on factual inaccuracies. It makes for fraught communal decision-making, particularly when some of the most vocal reactionaries are advocating precisely the approaches that are causing the problems in the first place. It’s like defending people’s right to eat as much junk food as they choose, knowing that the cost will eventually fall on the taxpayer.

In my opinion, the worst thing is unthinking conformity: the people whose supermarket shopping consists of exactly the same manufactured ready-meals as everyone else. Christmas Cake? Buy it in a box. Mince pies? Ditto. I think one can reach tentative conclusions about the world-views of people who do this, especially when one remembers the many benefits of making (or learning to make?) one’s own. Need new clothes? Head for the department store to buy the habitual uniform of leisure-wear. I think it does say something that so many people pay so little attention to their appearance. Need a holiday? Just pick up the nearest bucket-shop resort package. And so it goes on, the majority just following the herd, without, I suspect giving any thought whatsoever to their democratic right to stand out from the crowd. I worry that the main cause is the normalising effects of mass-media and rampant commercialism, stopping people from using their own critical faculties. I suspect, too, that some of this is a malaise brought on by the dominance of work: until I stopped working, I had simply not realised how many things I had been blocking or shelving simply on account of the head-space dominance of my working life. Is this good for us?

It is no more righteous to be a habitual rebel than a habitual conformist: it’s not the stance so much as the authenticity of the decision that matters. I suppose one could argue that majority views are simply arrived at because they are ‘right’ – but how so, when they demonstrably lead to harm? And not only of the visible kind, for I suspect there is a mental price, too, for the fear of standing out from the crowd. The predictability of the behaviour worries me too: as The Independent used to claim “Great Minds don’t think Alike”.

Back in my historic small town, I proposed we should construct a modernist centrepiece, a new community building that would be a confident statement of the town’s future. I found some buildings that in my mind’s eye would look stunning; a lot of people reacted as though I had suggested they should spit-roast their grandmothers. What is fascinating here is not the actual opinion so much as the deep differences in the mechanisms that result in them: why do some people react with revulsion to precisely the things I find inspirational, and vice versa? My best-fit answer so far is that it is not a matter of considered judgement so much as a fear of standing out, or of the unknown; some people are less afraid of their own minds than others.

A rather unkind word that I encountered for the first time this year is ‘sheeple’. Unfortunately, it does increasingly seem to sum up a large part of the population’s view of its own power of agency. It wouldn’t perhaps matter so much if it didn’t have the potential to lead us into deep difficulties – as all those who believed the lies peddled by the key Brexiters have shown. Whether Brexit or the health effects of junk food, it just shows that the majority is not always right.

Unthinking conformity can only lead to a featureless societal plain that is indeed some form of hell.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Seeing the urban light

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Fête des Lumières Lyon 2017

One of the things I admire about continental European countries is the way they ‘inhabit’ their towns and cities. While we in Britain have made great strides with revitalising our main urban areas in recent years, I always feel that the continentals, and in particular the French and Italians have a superior sense of urbanism. And it often extends to the smaller towns in a way that it often doesn’t in the U.K., where many of their equivalents feel half-hearted, if not hollowed-out.

Continental towns are not simply machines for shopping; they do not seem to have suffered from the corporate erosion of public space as has been highlighted here recently: for better or worse, squares and streets belong to all the people, and are not the sanitised pathways between shops that one sees here, with any ‘undesirable’ elements rapidly being moved on by private security guards. Consequently they seem to me to have a more authentic life to them, not that that is to diminish the hardship felt by the homeless, for example.

Another aspect of this is the number and scale of the festivals that take place; again Britain is catching up – we seem to have caught the habit of Christmas markets recently – but somehow we still don’t quite have the ‘conviction’ that comes from such festivities being long-established. Perhaps it will come with time.

I have always enjoyed the genuine communality of such festivals, amongst them the Herbstmesse and Fassnacht in Basel, and the Christmas market and Fête des Géants in Lille.

One on my bucket list is the Fête des Lumières in Lyon, which is has been happening this week. I like Lyon a lot: for a large city, it is remarkably civilised, and has a cosmopolitanism and sophistication that its British equivalents have yet to learn. The FdL is one of the most spectactular festivals I know, its technical accomplishment and, it has to be said expense, something that is beyond the ambitions of most cash-strapped British local Councils. That said, I think a large amount of it has to come down to vision, and it probably helps that the French have a great sense for graphic art, and they originated the ‘son et lumière’ spectacles of which this is probably the greatest. Every time watch, I am amazed at the creativity and technical accuracy of these artists of light. Enjoy the clips from this year’s festival.

 

 

Arts, Architecture & Design

Simple is beautiful

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As if proof were needed that good design need not cost the earth, here is an example of beautiful design that comes at an attractive price…

David Mellor is recognised as a leading figure in modern British design, and is the Royal Designer for Industry. He trained as a silversmith and made his name designing and manufacturing cutlery, in a plain but classic style deriving from mid-century modern design. His most ubiquitous piece of work is the British traffic light, which he designed in 1966.

His company is based in a modern-vernacular building at Hathersage in Derbyshire, now run by his son Corin. David Mellor died in 2009.

Mellor’s range has been extended over the years into other tablewares and beyond, and I particularly like this piece of bone china tableware. Like the cutlery, the design is plain and the materials fine but simple. In those circumstances, form is all, and the shape of these bowls is perfect. Being bone china, they are of very fine outline and crisp definition, and the white finish is a solid warm shade unlike the slight grey of much cheap white tableware.

We have replaced some broken breakfast bowls with these (simple is what I need in the morning…) but I think even the small ones are good enough to act as display items in their own right. While gathering a whole service would not be particularly cheap, a single breakfast bowl costs around £10. A larger size is also available.

http://www.davidmellordesign.com/

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Modernism on a marshy coast

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Having been born a westerner, to me the coast always meant towering cliffs and rocky outcrops with crashing waves or at least a decent swell. By contrast, the eastern coast of England is deeply uneventful, as the land (sometimes literally) slips apologetically into the sea. On this side of the country, you have to go to Yorkshire before anything more dramatic happens. I recall looking at maps of the country as a child, and thinking that the bit of the coastline north of London looked particularly untidy, before it sorts itself out north of Ipswich into the distinctive bulge of East Anglia.

The sea (well, the nearest salty inlet) is a mere ten miles from my home, and yet much of Essex feels distinctly un-coastal. By a strange fluke of geography, the country actually wraps itself around its coast, so that you can travel a good forty road miles, approach the coast and find yourself looking across at a place not very far from where you started. But if you add up the total length of the salt marshes, inlets and creeks, it adds up to the longest (salt-water) coastline of any county in England.

It’s a chaotic landscape of salt marsh, mud flat and low-lying islands, some of which can be reached by causeways at low tide. It’s also one that human activity has done its very best to mess up further, with a legacy of jerry-building extending from some of the earlier fishermen’s sheds by way of oil refineries to acres of sprawling mobile home camps clamped desperately around little apologies for beaches, which for most of the time lead you not so much to water as vast expanses of mud. The recent addition of off-shore wind-farms tames the scene further, though I must admit an admiration for those graceful and slightly surreal structures, which I think are at least an improvement on Shell Haven refinery. I suppose if you grew up in Tower Hamlets, it’s a welcome release. Yet, over the years I have come to appreciate that it does have a rather melancholy atmosphere of its own.

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The Blackwater estuary at low tide

 

And it does yield bounty, even if one might have reservations about the water-quality of the North Sea. Mersea Island near Colchester has been the source of oysters since Roman times, while further south, Maldon’s marshes are home to a particularly fine sea salt. The area is internationally recognised as a sea-bird sanctuary, and I have seen seals just off the beach at Walton on the Naze.

I do wish, however that more had been done to prevent the particularly sad kind of sprawl that I mentioned earlier: it takes a lot to see even a little of the picturesque in the rows of caravans, and blingy housing estates. So it was pleasing yesterday to walk out past Maldon to the beginnings of open coastline on the way to Goldhanger. A cold wind was blowing in off the sea (special delivery from Norway) so it was wrap-up-warm weather. We (two former colleagues and I) headed for what passes as a headland where a set of rather unusual-looking structures could be seen, and not far from where we knew there was one of the excellent Tiptree Tea Shops. These have spread in recent years to become a much-appreciated highlight of the more visit-able places in this ambivalent county. They are the creation of another eminent local concern, Wilkin Jams of Tiptree (by Royal Appointment), and they serve excellent lunches, cakes and cream teas.

The structures, built by Osea Leisure Park, turned out to be a modern take on traditional Indian Ocean beach hut no less, a line of ten in contrasting pastels, perched on stilts and just 20cm above the water at high tide. They were designed to have minimal impact on the protected beach beneath. It’s pleasing to see some genuinely innovative, high quality architecture being put into such a place – even if the cost of purchasing one, around £25,000, means it’s hardly a democratic gesture…

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The nearby tea room offered a refuge from the wind, and served up warm drinks and cakes before our return to the cars at Heybridge Basin. Looked at from the right angle, it could almost have been somewhere much more romantic, even a little Arthur Ransome. Just shows what a little imagination can do to the way humans intervene in even relatively mundane places.

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The Osea View tea room

https://www.tiptree.com/index.php/tiptree-tea-rooms/locations.html

Food

Multum in Parva*

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I quite like the idea of having lifetime quests. They needn’t be anything terribly grand (though they can be – opera-singing, anyone?) but it’s just the notion of going on a gradual, unhurried journey to try to find a particular holy grail that is important to you. Two of my particular ones relate to food, and as I said, neither is particularly important of itself – and yet there is much potential within for the discovery and perfecting of some small point of order. The first, which I will relate here by means of sticking my neck out rather in this little photo essay, is the quest to make a perfect ragù alla Bolognese, and the second is to come as close as I can given certain constraints to making the perfect pizza.

I regret to say that it seems to be a particular trait of the British to adulterate – nay  bastardise – cultures from other places. Copying is something all cultures do – but we seem to have a particular gift for ruining perfectly good dishes by not being bothered to do make them properly. So here is my own personal assault against the travesty that is the typical British spag bol. I have eaten the proper thing many times in Bologna, so consider myself reasonably qualified to judge it a success, and give myself, after about a quarter of a century of trying, about 9/10. It is still not quite the perfect Bolognese flavour, but it ain’t bad…

The key to this is slow cooking – while preparing this article, I set the pot simmering at around 1pm and kept a weather-eye on it during the afternoon. By 7.45 it was ready…

Ingredients:

  • One onion, one carrot, one stick of celery – all very finely chopped to make the traditional ‘base’ for the sauce.
  • 250-300 g passata (Cirio recommended) Note: no tinned tomatoes…
  • 150g minced beef
  • 150g minced pork
  • One or two strips of pancetta to about 40g, finely diced
  • Salt and pepper
  • Milk (yes – milk!) as required, perhaps 200ml
  • Around 200-250 ml red wine.
  • Olive oil and/or butter for sweating the vegetables
  • And that is all.
  • Makes six portions, and is worth freezing.

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Method:

Melt the oil and/or butter in a medium sauce pan and sweat the vegetables until they are well softened and reduced.

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In a second, larger pan, heat more oil and/or butter and brown the various meats, starting with the pancetta, and then adding each at a time. Allow to colour thoroughly, but do not burn.

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Add the vegetables to the meat and combine thoroughly.

Add a small amount of passata until the mixture is moist but not flooded – the tomatoes should not dominate the appearance or taste of the dish.

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Add the red wine and bring to a slow simmer. Again, do not flood the mix.

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Season with salt and pepper.

Allow to simmer until the ingredients start to mix fully, and then add around 50ml of milk and mix in. This is the secret of a traditional ragu, which gives it a particular colour and flavour.

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Leave the mixture to simmer on a very low heat for an absolute minimum of two hours, ideally several times that. When it becomes a little dry, add a small amount more milk.

The final consistency should be moist but not runny; serve.

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Ragu is never eaten with spaghetti in Bologna, tagliatelle being much superior for coating with the sauce. Why not splash out on some quality to go with your efforts?

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I normally mix the sauce into the pasta, but left it separate for the photo, so that the consistency is visible. Italians also add far less sauce than the typical Briton – there should be a coating, not a flood – and they also tend to let their food cool a little before eating, so as to release the flavours.

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My wife, being vegetarian, does not appreciate this at all. The benefit of this dish is that it needs to be made in bulk, but is one of the few things I think freezes without too much harm. While this is cooking away, I normally prepare for her a simple sauce of cream, blue cheese and walnuts – which takes all of four minutes…

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*Much in a Little (the motto of England’s smallest county, Rutland)

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Well rounded people

bench

Autumn term 1975. Monday morning started with double woodwork – and for me the slightly strange experience of learning in my father’s department. Although it’s perhaps a pity it didn’t come mid-way through the week, I always looked forward to the lesson (which was not taught by my Pa…). Given the academic routine of the grammar school, I found great pleasure of making dovetail joints or turning bowls on the lathe for a change. Unlike certain of my father’s colleagues, I never saw practical lessons as inferior, and I think it is where my now much-valued aesthetic appreciation and streak of perfectionism came from. I well remember my father’s fury when, one day he was summoned to the Headmaster’s office (where he was still seen as the chippie) and instructed to repair fifty wooden exam desks. He replied that he was not the odd-jobs man. Indeed, he was and is a highly-skilled cabinet-maker.

It was also interesting how some of the best in the class during those lessons were not the academic stars (though there was crossover); I think it was good that this gave those with different talents a chance to shine – and the academic ones a taste of what it was like to struggle a bit.

This recollection is particularly in my mind at the moment as my father, now 83, (and still making violins for a hobby) is currently collaborating with a young friend and me to construct a facsimile of a mid-century Scandinavian piece of furniture  by Kai Kristiansen in American black walnut (shown in rosewood above). It is a wood he has never worked before and he is quite excited by the prospect; it is proving to be a most enjoyable experience, which has ranged from researching the original, to analysing the construction, adapting it for the workshop and personal taste, to sourcing suitable timber. A specification and price has been agreed, and construction will start shortly.

Practical skills have been repeatedly looked down on by educators in this country; it is though they are somehow insufficiently worthy, given their apparent lack of intellectual rigour. My former teacher Peter Whitton knew this was not true, for despite being a Classicist, he was never happier than in his woodwork shop, where he too turned out fine pieces.

At present, I am starting to look at what I do next; the medication is gone, and I can feel my mental strength returning little by little. Amongst a number of ‘irons in the fire’ I am tempted to branch part-time into interior design, a field I have followed for many years. I defy anyone to claim that the processes involved are intellectually weak; indeed, I know of few so demanding exercises as solving difficult design dilemmas. And then there is the fact that one (hopefully) has a beautiful end product, which can be admired by those with the aesthetic sensitivity to do so. It is very tempting to sign up for that diploma.

Last Friday, we went to the opening night of Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Life of Julie Cope at FirstSite in Colchester; I am also currently reading his book The Descent of Man, and despite Perry’s lurid persona and less than rigorous academic background, let no one claim that this is not both a skilled and highly erudite man.

At the other end of the spectrum, I know of individuals educated to the highest academic levels, who are not able to perform the simplest practical tasks for themselves, and who seemingly lack any ability really to see (in the deep sense) beauty in their surroundings. They may have trained minds (and I’m all for that) but they seem impoverished in other ways. Is this the cost of the strong emphasis on academia? The ultimate sadness for my father came some years ago when the Craft & Design department he had founded and developed over forty years was closed to make way for a computer suite. No more opportunity for today’s sixth formers to do something practical as part of their week’s programme.

This is short-sighted: many highly-educated people do also appreciate the arts and practical crafts; they provide a complete diversion into another rich aspect of life which I for one would never be without. Peter also knew this, as did the many clearly-thoughtful people at the Perry exhibition.

Only target-chasing educational managers seem snooty enough to disparage the breadth that comes from the empowerment to produce and appreciate tangible works. Our neighbouring nations such as Germany have never disparaged practical skills either – and a comparison of the two nations’ economies tells all that need to be said about that.

Bring back double woodwork on Monday mornings – especially in the most academic schools. Breadth, depth and richness in education is important.