Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

Lille in Winter

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Lille Winter Fair in the Grand Place.

“Don’t be ridiculous: European is what I am when I don’t want to be British!” She had form, too, the woman who said this to me some years ago – as she divided her time between Sussex and Paris.

I’ve always felt “European” ought to be something Europeans do at home, though, not just when they’re playing away. But there is no doubt about it, even a quick shot of “continental” does wonders – which is why we had planned to take advantage of Eurostar’s cheap anniversary tickets for a post-Christmas day in Lille. This time, however, it was tinged with notes of both sadness and defiance: our day was to be our last blow-out as EU citizens – but also an act of defiance that the European life will go on regardless. Here’s a photo report.

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Place Louise de Bettignies

Crawling out of bed at 06h00 on a Saturday in January is not to be recommended – but an early train to London (50 minutes) and a quick hop to St Pancras saw us ready for a departure around 09h00. It could all be so much quicker, of course, were it not for the paranoia that still treats Anglo-French travel as though it is a trip to the moon…

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Eurostar – St Pancras.

That aside, we had an excellent day in Lille. I have been countless times and know the place pretty well. I like its fine old town – but also its slightly gritty, post-industrial feel. It’s our nearest continental city – and certainly a better proposition than Paris or Calais for a day out. We arrived at around 11h30 local time, followed by a good mooch around the city centre, lunch at Paul – involving rather too much molten hot chocolate – and some retail therapy, even if mostly the window-cleaning variety. (Lécher les vitrines: literally, licking the windows). We did come home with a new table lamp, though, some of our ritual pates de fruits from Méert and some crazily-reduced purple leather gloves from Printemps (not for me…)

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Bouquinistes in the Vieille Bourse
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Méert was established in 1677 and the current shop dates from 1839. Charles de Gaulle’s favourite shop (He was a native of Lille).

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Plenty of other chocolatiers on the Rue Esquermoise…
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Ligne Roset…
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Roche Bobois.

My wife had never done the city tour bus before – rather surprisingly we find these a good way to get a slightly wider perspective than one would on foot. (The Lille one takes in some of the new, modernist business districts too, for instance). When we called to book in the morning, it was not certain that the tour would run because of some expected demonstrations. We called back, to find the decision taken to go ahead. So the tour was undertaken – albeit with certain delays and diversions as we did manage to run into the middle of a manifestation gilets jaunes

I really like Notre Dame de la Treille, Lille’s cathedral: dour on the outside but a surprising clash of tradition and colourful modernism on the inside.

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Above and below: Notre Dame de la Treille. The West window is made of translucent sheets of marble.

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By afternoon, the city was packed, as the sales are still in full swing, as is the Winter Fair that runs to the end of January.

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Place Louise de Bettignies – one of Lille’s more recent renovations.
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Place des Oignons.
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Winter cafe life.

We had decided to branch out in terms of dining; the particular challenge being to find somewhere that could cater for my vegetarian wife while giving me a traditional Flemish hit. France is slowly cottoning on with vegetarianism, and we had a number of places to check out. In the end, though, we allowed ourselves to be pulled into the Estaminet de Gand (Estaminet being a traditional Flemish eatery) on the Rue de Gand, with an hour to linger over apéros and cheese before they could serve meals from 19h00. You need to get in early if you haven’t booked…

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The Rue de Gand
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Estaminet de Gand – traditional Flemish restaurant.

Le Welsh is supposedly a Flemish speciality – basically a version of Welsh rarebit using Flemish beer, Maroilles cheese and just about anything else you want in it. More like fondue with floating toast… and frites. My carbonnade (beef stew with beer) contained about half a cow, Then I found the other half lurking under the salad. A very friendly and accommodating restaurant.

A much-needed walk across the city centre saw us back at Lille Europe for just after 20h00, and home at 23h00.

I don’t care how subjective the impression may be: French cities have a charm and style that is simply missing from most in the UK. And the people still know how to dress properly for winter, too.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Backward to the future – How English!

Englishness – final part: solutions.

The images below show residential quarters of three small British towns. It is possible to identify where they were taken?

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The first image comes from northern Scotland, not far from Inverness; the second from southern East Anglia, and the third from East Devon. The straight-line distance between the first and the other two is about 460 miles each, while the second and third are about 200 miles apart.

But in many ways, they could almost be parts of the same place. Apart from some climate-related differences, there is really little to separate them – and in a way, I believe this is a profound expression of the identity crisis within Britain, England in particular.

As I discussed previously, Englishness is an elusive concept. While the Scots, Welsh and Irish have, if anything strengthened the celebrations of their national days in recent years, St George’s Day remains a Cinderella – or an embarrassment. There are many reasons for this, and the British are not the only nation to fight shy of such overt patriotism – but as anyone who has experienced national days in France or even reserved Switzerland will know, they can have a powerful impact on people’s sense of identity and ‘belonging’. People celebrate them because they choose to, not because they’re told to.

The purpose of the three images is to illustrate how little regard we have in this country for regional differences. It is true that the pictures were intentionally selected to show this; the more historic parts of the three towns do look rather different. But given how important ‘home’ is to people’s sense of identity, it is perhaps concerning that for a hundred years or more, we have increasingly expunged localness from people’s dwelling-places. And what we have replaced it with largely lacks character of any sort at all.

We don’t seem to be making much headway either: while more recent builds sometimes incorporate nods to local vernacular, they are rarely little more than stick-on additions to developers’ standard products. And the quality is so poor! The build and environment of the average British residential area more closely resembles what I have seen in some former eastern-bloc countries than most of our western European neighbours.

Such things might not seem the most obvious place to start when addressing a crisis of national identity – but a moment’s thought might show that the places where people live – where they most closely identify with – might be precisely the place to start. If we are to address this perceived deficiency, then no amount of flag-waving ceremonial can achieve the same impact as attending to the basics of ordinary ‘lived lives’.

We need to address the fact that the traditional nation-state may no longer be the most appropriate model for identity-loyalty. In fact, it may never have been. Prior to the nineteenth century, most communities had a much more local sense of themselves; before the coming of the railways, neither time nor currency was fully standardised.

What happened since may be seen as “progress”, but there is no guarantee that people’s fundamental psychological needs have kept up – particularly for those who have least access horizon-broadening education and travel, and the ability to benefit from it. (Even where I live, a mere 45 miles from London, there are still people who see those from the next village, three miles away, as ‘other’; it is easily done…)

The nation-state is arguably the product of a past era, whose purpose was not to serve its citizens, but to compete externally with other nation-states. To that end, it was necessary to construct a common sense of purpose and commitment within the population-workforce. That was particularly effectively done in the UK due to its hierarchical social structures, strong ruling class and the state’s longevity. History speaks for itself.

But the fact that we have these top-down national structures is no guarantee of the depth to which they really penetrate into people’s real identities. Identity is primarily a matter of personal experience; it is not really something that can be commanded. In the modern era, a more widely educated population has started to see nationalism for the construct that it is; groups of all kinds are demanding the right to define their own identities.

At a more local level, nationwide policies have eroded the local distinctiveness that perhaps resonates more fully with people in terms of their personal identity. The fact that one is almost obliged live in bland, identical houses the length of this nation – ones that show no respect whatsoever to the physical or cultural environments in which they are situated – can be seen as an important expression of that erasure.

A significant defining difference between the UK and much of the rest of Europe was the experience of 1939-45. The nations currently with the most stable social settlements seem largely to be those which were forced to re-build from the ground up in the post-war period. They had every incentive to create structures and mindsets that would not lead them back to their past – including the EU; they seem to have very largely succeeded.

In the UK, by comparison, the experience of “winning” the War led to the further entrenching of dated attitudes and structures that have become increasingly unfit for modern purpose. One of those was the enduring strength of the centralised nation-state. Other countries that tended in a similar way, for example France and Italy, have increasingly been forced to acknowledge that regionalism is necessary to accommodate popular demand.

But in the UK, the trend has been in precisely the opposite direction. There was no incentive to do otherwise while the nation’s entire structure was predicated on social hierarchy and the preservation of the elite classes. One of the reasons that the houses in those photographs are so dismal is that the living conditions of the “ordinary people” have simply not been seen as sufficiently important in the corridors of power for anyone to do much about it.

The same could be said for almost any aspect of this nation; this has led to the gross socioeconomic polarisation that we see today – and which in turn undoubtedly fed the disaffection that ironically caused much of the population to turn against an EU whose nearer member-states arguably represent models that could help us to solve some of these problems. It certainly applied to education – the want of which (in an intellectual as opposed to functional sense) also fed Brexit because much of the population was neither sufficiently engaged nor equipped to make the complex decision with which it was presented.

So it may be that we need to go “backward to the future”. The crisis in identity is in large part based in the fact that the one we already have was built for an earlier era, one where authoritarian imposition was sufficient to make people “buy in”. That identity – and almost all of the cultural icons that came to represent it – were based overwhelmingly on class hierarchy rather than anything more universal. The elite called all the shots; the middle tried to conform – and the rest were left to define themselves with the scant pickings that were left. It was based on competition for privilege, and top-down control, rather than genuine collaboration in a shared identity.

This mindset is still far more dominant in the British psyche today than many realise. Almost all aspects of British society and culture still hinge on social signalling and competitiveness, rather than any common sense of identity (the only sharing is within our internal tribes). What we eat, wear, inhabit or drive are more signals of social status than anything else. Any glance through the Sunday supplements will reveal endless role-models for status-seeking. All that has changed – if anything – is that money and material goods have come to assume a more visible aspect of that labelling, while ephemeral cultural goods such as art, literature and civic duty have declined.

In the process, people’s more instinctive identities, focused on much smaller areas, were overridden. The construction of identikit mass housing the length of the nation from the nineteenth century on was just one particularly visible example – superficially unifying, but only in an impoverished sense – and to an identity that they did not necessarily embrace.

In general, the concerns of government have not been the practical emancipation of the general populace. The Right has increasingly bulwarked the existing hierarchy, while the Left has mostly sought to replace one elite with another. What is really needed is for the concept of social elitism to be dispensed with altogether. This might seem naively idealistic – yet it is my repeated and persistent impression that social competition and exclusivity is simply a much less significant feature of society in places such as The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. It is not that they reject it: they don’t need to. It barely even figures. An acquaintance who moved to France with relatively little knowledge of that country recently observed to me how much more genuinely egalitarian it is than the UK – and despite the glorious revolution, France is hardly the best example. The need to climb the ladder is inversely proportional to conditions at its foot; it is those that have never been paid sufficient attention to in Britain.

By removing competitive elitism, the matter of individual and group identities can shift to being something more genuinely universal and inclusive. This is why, I believe, we get such as strong sense of collective culture and ‘identity’ when we visit countries where that is the case: their cultural capital of all sorts – both high and low – is not fragmented by class, but is “owned” by a much wider section of the populace. Food, art, fashion, décor, music and more are simply less obviously a matter of monopolisation by a small elite. That is not to say it doesn’t exist – think BCBG signalling in Paris for example – but it is not particularly socially-exclusive to go to the opera in Italy – because opera is “owned” by nearly everyone. Even in the world of fashion, designer clothing is more often sold on its quality and style; less-often on its “exclusivity”. Scandinavian countries, of course, take equality several stages further. And as a result, you also rarely see the inverse-snobbery of bling and chavism where extreme (or inverted) social climbing attempts to misappropriate things perceived to be outside its natural territory.

So the key to curing England’s identity crisis is, ironically to do “less England”. Given that so much of its traditional identity is saturated with the issues discussed above, we need to find a different basis on which to build. The most obvious thing to use is regionalism. Everyone has to live somewhere, and without recourse to gated communities, places are difficult to make exclusive. Places are generally things experienced (“cognitively owned”) by all. It could be made a lot more so if land ownership were not so overwhelmingly private… In effect, we need to break England up into its constituent regions – not only in an administrative and economic sense – but in a cultural one too – and give them to their people.

Baden-Württemberg in Germany is a land about 150 miles by 100; Bavaria is somewhat larger at about 200 by 150. But both are not radically different in size from the standard economic regions which already exist in Britain. (Scotland by area may already be too large as a single unit). The difference with länder in Germany, cantons in Switzerland, regions in Italy and France is that those all have a cultural and geographic identity as opposed to a purely administrative one, as is the low-key British norm. It is not a panacea: there are internal tensions, for example, between Baden and Württemberg and between Swiss cantons (not to mention the Belgian provinces…) – but it is also interesting that there was significant outcry in France at the recent re-consolidation of smaller-sized regions into larger blocs.

The question is how to do this – but the answer is not as difficult as it might seem; again we can take ideas from other countries. Those standard regions – or something like them – need to be explicitly identified and named in the public consciousness in a way that they currently are not. They need to be given their own regional governments and state capitals. They need to be given flags, signage – and perhaps even anthems. They need to have the power to vary local laws and taxes; to exert control over matters like planning and environmental protection. They need to be able to champion their distinctiveness in matters such as food, history, accents, customs, landscape, economy, architecture and transport. This last is significant: a way of binding a region is through creating the perception of regional integration. It works on the railways in some areas, such as Scotrail and Greater Anglia – but they need to strengthen the regional emphasis. These regions need to be given meaningful budgets in order to promote these things. They then need to send representatives to London.

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East Anglia’s flag

It would all feel rather artificial at first, of course. There would no doubt be huge scepticism. But a concerted programme of gentle, benign state-building over a period of decades would start to change this – assisted by the generational churn. And over time, I believe people would start to acquire meaningful identities based on places rather than social status. Rivalries would probably emerge – as to some extent already exist – but that would probably be a good thing, so long as they were gentle. Existing identities in some parts of the country could be used as a basis – but they would need to shift from the rather defensive semi-defiance of today into something more wholly positive.
As this became established, people would start to feel pride and security in those identities; they would “own” the iconography that went with them in a more authentic, less defensive way than now – and they might hopefully perceive those who chose to migrate to their regions as welcome arrivals in a shared enterprise that was strong enough to assimilate them.

In the long run, I think this would also shift British perceptions of the rest of Europe too – not only because that is where many of those migrants might come from – but because we would feel that we could engage with the rest on a much more equal, proactive footing. It is worth noting that German länder retain direct representation at the EU in Brussels. On the fourth flag pole, along with the regional national and union flag, could fly the gold-stars-on-blue: something else that has never routinely happened in this country. At that stage, we might finally be ready to re-join.

But whether a nation that seems so culturally atrophied at all levels that it is terrified of voting for any change at all will ever manage to enact this, is a question of an entirely different magnitude.

 

Opinion & Thought

Old leather, polished wood – and sunbeds

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Englishness – part three

The Germans, by reputation, excel at obtaining the best sun-loungers in Mediterranean resort hotels. The British (and perhaps others) excel at grumbling about it.

I have no idea whether the reputation is deserved, as I never take that kind of holiday (and therefore probably never rub up against that kind of German…).

Popular repute also has it that this speaks volumes about the kind of people that the Germans are – while eliciting certain, rather unflattering adjectives. I hasten to add, that this is nothing whatsoever like my experience of that nation – which may of course also speak volumes about the places that I choose to frequent.

The cultural telescope, however, has two ends. For all that we use such anecdotes to illustrate our impressions (and prejudices), such stories can say as much about us as ‘them’. I wonder how (if at all) healthy-and-efficient, early-to-rise Germans perceive the laggardly and perhaps-disorganised British in the race for sun-beds.

Such perceptions of the Germans amongst the British seem fairly common – and yet when one examines the outcomes of our two approaches, in the way our respective nations and societies function, I wonder who the joke is really on. It is visible in all sorts of ways – for example in the fact that German Railways have just reduced their fares to encourage sustainable travel – on the same day that British rail companies yet again raised theirs. That, to me, speaks volumes.

It is impossible to know how culturally-representative these two examples really are, of two nations that total some 160 million people between them. And that is without trying to factor in all the comparisons that might be made with all the other nations of Europe.

We cannot but have a tiny, selective impression of the culture and identity of a whole nation. We should remember that our minds selectively edit what they see according to our preconceptions. We also need to remember that the base-lines in such comparisons are rarely consistent: my Swiss friend Alfred regularly complains about the traffic congestion in Basel. I can only conclude that he has never fully experienced British roads at rush hour. Maybe I have just been very lucky in Basel – but I doubt it.

In another way, the shortcomings of our ability to see such things accurately don’t matter. Identity is, ultimately, entirely a matter of perception – and if our imaginations construct certain images, then for all intents and purposes that is what is true. Which is not to say that it is unwise to remind ourselves regularly that we may be romanticising what we (think we) are seeing. Our mind-picture can only ever be partial.

The big problem arises when we try to compare cultures about which we have different ‘resolutions’ of knowledge. While it is probably reasonable for a Briton to make comparisons between, say France and Germany based on an equal, outsider’s view of both – the real problems arise when we are trying to assess our own culture. As I suggested previously, from the “inside” – as we can only be with our own culture – things can appear very different indeed. Perhaps is it simply impossible ever to step far enough away from our own culture to be able to see it as others do? It can only be all the more difficult if one fails to appreciate that cultural judgements are only ever relative – they appear differently depending on which end of the telescope you are looking through – so trying to conclude that one is in any way “better” than the other is probably doomed to failure. “Preferable” might, however, be possible.

Perhaps the only way of doing this is to examine the physical manifestations of those cultures in terms of the way each nation operates, the values it upholds, and the success with which it appears to achieve and sustain them. Always remembering that even ‘desirables’ such as equality or social stability can be seen in more than one light… But when it comes to sunbeds, it still seems that the German way is more successful than the British.

The starting premise of this piece was the suggestion in The New Statesman, that English culture is in crisis because it lacks a clear and positive sense of itself. It occurred to me that this may also be why there is a strong inclination among some Britons to admire cultures other than our own: ones that appear to offer strong, positive identities that we cannot find nearer to home. As I said, even if those identities are imaginary, at one level that doesn’t matter, so long as they provide the observer with what they are looking for.

That certainly resonated with me, as an explanation for many of my personal choices and actions, even down to the identity of this blog, whose name and underpinning purpose is the search for aspects of a “well-lived life” that I feel are at best elusive in general lived experience in the UK. What bothers me is why those “feel-good” moments happen much less frequently in my home country than they seem to elsewhere.

The obvious starting point for this has to be that familiarity breeds contempt; that we simply cannot appreciate our own cultures in the way we do others’ because “that is how normal life is” – and we tend to respond more to the exceptional and defining. If this is true, then the same should be true everywhere – but that, by definition, is not something I can easily judge.

What I can see is that those external expressions of other nation’s culture often seem to align with my own aspirations far more frequently elsewhere, than in England. The fact is, I find much of English culture to be insipid, confused, aesthetically illiterate, and dominated by social signalling and matters of class and status. It is for this reason that I find it difficult to identify with the culture that is supposed to be my own.

Perhaps the strongest icons of English culture – those that seem to figure most frequently in the minds of the non-British, are nearly all associated with the traditional upper classes. Be it sartorial style, interior décor, foodstuffs, motor cars, table-manners, social convention, matters of personal deportment and more, most of the “so English” things are all the preserve of a small, exclusive section of English society, to which I do not belong – and do not want to.

While the old leather, polished wood and tweed does have a certain aesthetic appeal, it is almost impossible to dissociate it from its aristocratic connotations. It is also inherently traditionalist, fuddy-duddy, backward-looking and socially-repressive in ways that I do not wish to associate with. What’s more, despite a certain “richness” it is also often aesthetically illiterate, as the violent clashes of colour and pattern of traditional English menswear show. It glories in its contrived eccentricity, fake under-statement – and a lasting, starchy attachment to its military origins that I find most off-putting. In the final reckoning, English style is a uniform, a social statement of conformity and individual repression, rather than a form of personal expression. It also rejoices in its lack of aesthetic coherence, the bumbling aristocrat personified in cloth and hide.

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The alternatives are scarce. While few of us actually live in the kinds of mansions that the foregoing might suggest, the values of that social stratum have extended into almost all other expressions of Englishness. Perceptions of English countryside almost all descend from the idealised aristocratic ideas of what is delightful. Those who aspired to social advancement (itself an antisocial concept) felt the need to assume that aesthetic and other values. Hence we have vast swathes of suburbia whose identikit Tudorbethan is widely furnished with pale imitations of ‘traditional’ “good taste” which derive directly from the stately home. Social mores were likewise dominated by aristocratic rules of acceptability – thus we have amost infinite gradations of cringingly genteel Margo Leadbetter-like middle class ‘taste’ whose main cultural benchmark appears to be that which will confer social acceptability with those a rung or two up the ladder – if only in the imagination. It is another expression of Englishness that I find utterly repulsive.

The only other alternative appears to be what was left for those without the means or hope of acquiring such faux-gentility. There are “working classes” everywhere, of course – but I detect in other countries less of the exclusion from wider cultural capital that exists in England. The logic is clear: when the higher echelons of society have so completely corned all of the best for themselves, the only thing left is to define oneself in opposition to that – by actively disowning the cultural capital of higher arts and culture, and revelling in a crude, brutal and utterly utilitarian persona which is all that is left of the national identity once the aristos have finished with it. It is all the easier when the higher orders treat you badly in the first place: the only thing you can really do to retain any sense of autonomy is to show them your arse.

And that is what much of non-faux-genteel English identity resolutely does. It is a form of inverted class-snobbery that revels in the crude, the anarchic and repugnant, the unimaginative and the crushingly routine. Positive La Bonne Vie artfulness is something utterly absent from ordinary English life. Much of what it is now fashionable as “gritty authenticity” is, to my eyes simply rough. When does ‘down-to-earth’ become ‘boring’ or crude? That may seem grossly condescending, but it is still true that many of those who could escape such cultural environments took their first chance and never went back.

Even though (perhaps because?) my own roots are in the working class of a couple of generations ago, I find the studied crudeness of English tribal mass-culture to be no more appealing than the aristocratic type. If you happen not to like Corrie, Footie and beer, it is just as excluding. It is, in any case increasingly false: a factory-processed replica of itself, spewed back by huge commercial and media interests in plastic, Anglo-American form at “the masses” who supposedly aren’t able to cope with anything more.

There seems to be little in the middle. For a while, I had hopes of the English food revival – but it turned out to be just another form of gentrification, the main effect of which (as anywhere) is to destroy authenticity. Gentrification takes mundane, authentic cultural capital and turns it into exclusive delicacies for the new elites, who in reality crave little more than the respectability (rebranded as Cool) of their stodgy antecedents. It mostly appeals to the chattering classes, whose magpie-like predilection for cosmopolitan cultural novelty, I suppose I might appear to ape. But novelty is the last thing I want. Continuity is more like it: the enduring, solid cultural icons and institutions that one can go back to over a span of decades, that give our own identities roots. (It is possible to do that without atrophy). The preciousness of gentrification seems to so-alienate so many that it removes any claim it might have to be a genuine national identity.

The irony about both sides of English culture is that they are two sides of the same coin. Both are backward-looking, fundamentally nostalgic for things that perhaps never really existed. Both are more about signalling what they think they are – or want to be – than anything more genuine. Whether it is social climbing or studied roughness, it is all about pretence rather than honesty: probably the inevitable outcome of a society so heavily predicated for so long on a strong social hierarchy.

In that sense they are no more a real identity than my apparent idealisation of continental cultures. They both rely on people knowing their place, rather than finding their own in the way that Sprezzatura implies. They are now both cardboard cut-outs whose purpose is not to create a sense of heimat-like belonging, but to assign people their place in the social pecking order. I think their inherent superficiality invokes a sense of emptiness that leaves people feeling as though they lack something deep.

To invoke “The English People” is nothing like invoking the German Volk or even French Citoyens. Such English culture as still exists is a revivalist, sanitised caricature. When people encounter the guts of real, old English tradition, they find it lumpen and crude, and are often repelled – which is why in England folk traditions are a thing of mockery, unlike in Scotland or Ireland, for example. And what most people think if as “folk” is actually a form of soft, acoustic pop: a sanitised modern expression of cultural longing that can’t actually cope with the ancient reality of what it longs for.

And so, I am left failing to find anything meaningful in English culture that does not in one way or another repel me. I am left with the only option of constructing my own identity from what I see and value elsewhere. There is no reason why, over time, cultural acquisitions cannot assume a level of authenticity – though they will never feel ‘native’ within the course of a single lifetime.

A confected and ridiculous position, perhaps – but one which, if the “crisis of Englishness” is correct, a lot of other people perhaps feel too. And while they do, it will only increase their sensitivity to what they perceive as unwelcome incursions.

This was intended to be a three-part item. However, there remains the issue of whether the Englishness deficit can be addressed. One more installment to follow…

 

Opinion & Thought, Travel

Travel confuses the mind.

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Musings of a cultural magpie, part 2.

They say that travel broadens the mind. Sometimes, I think it just confuses it.
Over the years, I have been a house-guest of perhaps half a dozen French people, sometimes for a week or more at a stretch. I have visited the homes of a good many others, not to mention some of their schools and workplaces – and have hosted a similar number in return.

Hardly a representative sample of a populous nation, of course, but perhaps rather more than average for a Brit. It’s hardly surprising that those people were all quite different in both personalities and life-styles, just as individuals are anywhere – and yet my dominant memory of them, collectively, is their overwhelming Frenchness.

I had similar experiences in Germany, with the added complication of being nowhere near as competent a German-speaker as a French. Luckily, my hosts all spoke good English, and the same is true of Switzerland, where I have the most enduring friendships. Once the language issue is minimised, you can progress.

I recall the timidity with which I first made such connections, something that has fortunately lessened over the years. While this was doubtlessly partly a matter of personality, I suspect that neither is it an unusual experience. Anxieties perhaps hinge most obviously on language and food, tinged with a less-focused fear of making an unintended faux-pas. At a deeper level again, I was aware of a self-imposed sense of being an “ambassador” for my country. It ought to be possible for people just to be people, no matter where they come from!

But for all that the British may carry the extra baggage of their self-perceived ‘apartness’, I doubt that such anxieties are a one-way affair; indeed the comments and behaviours of those who have stayed with me suggested as much. To some extent, it is a simple matter of unfamiliarity.

What this perhaps betrays is the fact that national identities still matter; that despite several decades of intensifying integration between the nations of Europe, we have yet to cast off those national characters and become some kind of bland, homogenous Euro-citizen, the kind of thing of Eurosceptics’ worst nightmares.

I think the cultural dissonance that we experience on such occasions is entirely natural, and nothing to be ashamed of, even if it makes sense to try to overcome it. In fact, it is just as possible to experience similar feelings in an unfamiliar part of one’s own country, or with people whom one does not know well. All the nationality issue does is raise pre-existing stakes somewhat. Yet despite that, when travelling around one’s own country one is not, I think, struck firstly by its homogeneity. From the ‘inside’, such things are taken for granted, one notices subtle differences more quickly – and it takes something exceptionally symbolic to prompt the “so English” response. I’m pretty sure that the same phenomenon applies elsewhere: we just take our own cultures for granted.

Yet our tendency to “other” people is more difficult to overcome than we like to think. There is evidence to suggest that it is a natural survival instinct, and such things are not easily over-ridden: it takes a great deal of work to remove all illiberal thoughts. Even though I am entirely comfortable in the countries that I mentioned earlier, and despite the fact that I know some places and people in those countries better than plenty in my own, it can still be difficult to get beyond that first-level sense of ‘otherness’, even when it is a wholly positive experience.

I still tend to think of Swiss friends, French friends, German friends – not just friends; I expect it is reciprocal. In recent years, I have made progress in this respect. Some of my Swiss friends, in particular, are now so familiar that the nationality issue has (almost) disappeared, and I just think of them as discrete individuals like any other – until they say or do something that re-emphasises their otherness… Can it ever disappear completely?

But it has taken a lot of years and shared experience to get to that point. With people I know less well, it is less easy to do; again, I suggest this is quite normal, and not only an international problem. (I sometimes wonder what lies behind the public bonhomie of EU leaders’ meetings: do they really share so much that the national differences are secondary?)

The same is true of places: those that I return to year in year out have eventually become just places (almost) like any other where I spend part of my life. When we are in Basel, it is almost impossible not to flit between three countries just in order to function. Our friends live within about ten minutes’ drive of both France and Germany; their son went to school in ‘another’ country; they own a second home in Germany – about a hour’s drive away. Eventually, you start forgetting which country you are in – certainly between Germany and Switzerland; France is a little more ‘different’ – and that difference therefore perhaps intrudes more. (I wonder, though if that is true for the Swiss and Germans too: I don’t think I would ever mistake Scotland or Ireland for England, for all that we share so much…)

I suppose it would be possible to criticise all of the forgoing quite heavily. It could be a purely personal difficulty, that many people don’t experience at all. But I somehow doubt it: my feelings are born from many years of deliberately confronting the issue. I remember just how (needlessly) intimidating my early trips to other countries were – and I can see the journey I have travelled. Much evidence suggests that the bulk of the British population, at least, is still in the starting blocks. I don’t think an annual foreign holiday comes anywhere near adequately addressing it: you have to access local people and places for a start – and you have to keep going back.

I suppose that it could even be seen as a form of racism: the confession of a limited mind that can’t escape its own constraints. Perhaps – but it is not for the want of trying. It is born of decades of experience – and I suspect that anyone who claims it isn’t remotely that difficult really hasn’t thought about it very deeply. The more I understand these issues, the more complex and intractable they can seem…

Where does this leave us in terms of our own national identity? I ended part one by saying that I don’t like much of what I see of my own nation’s modern identity. I find little there that I wish to “own” – which is why I have gone looking elsewhere for something that is meaningful to me.

Yet I suspect that we can’t ever fully escape the culture into which we were born. Emigrating to another country might be a valiant attempt – but the extent to which one can ever really become someone else is doubtful. Despite citizenship tests, taking another nationality is fundamentally a legal and financial matter; I doubt if that act alone ever really changes one’s mindset very much. I suspect that people who live abroad are ultimately destined to be perpetual outsiders, perhaps eventually in their native lands too. They risk becoming – dare I say – “citizens of nowhere”. Perhaps that is why many are so sensitive about the label ‘ex-pat’?

So, much as I love my perceptions of certain other countries, I remain highly suspicious that they are anything more than romantic stereotypes, born of one’s inescapable tendency to generalise. Neither am I convinced that fleeing a country in which I feel almost as much a foreigner as anywhere else, would actually solve anything. The daily routines might change; familiarity would definitely increase – but would that experience destroy precisely what I appreciate about those places as an outsider? Would greater familiarity just breed contempt of what I previously admired?

There is, however, no law that says one should only be influenced by one’s birth-nation, no matter how nationalists might want it that way. People have been inspired by what they encountered abroad for centuries: it was the whole raison d’être of the Grand Tour. Somewhere along the way, we can cross a rubicon from infatuation to genuine adoption. Part of that no doubt involves getting past infatuation and moving onto marriage. By doing that we both remove “foreignness” and simultaneously make ourselves a little more cosmopolitan. Now that panettone, for example, is eaten throughout Europe, is it now less Italian – or are those doing the eating a little more Italian? (And what happens when we Brits do what we always do and adulterate it, or turn it into bread-and-butter pudding?)

I think one thing is certain: this is neither a quick nor easy process: extending one’s cultural horizons beyond one’s national ones can set up all sorts of conflicts. Maybe this is, too, what the much-derided “Little Englanders” are afraid of. Perhaps it is all the worse because of the relative weakness of their home culture?

Facing it can be a challenging proposition – but especially so for those who rarely venture (in their heads, if not their bodies) beyond their own little island.

(Final part to follow)

Opinion & Thought

The wood and the trees of an English Christmas.

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Taking a crisp Christmas evening turn around the small, ancient town where we live, my thoughts returned to something I had read a few days before. Quite a few of the houses were in darkness, but in others, still-open curtains allowed glimpses into timber-framed rooms where formal tables were set, or the remnants of the Christmas lunch lingered. Children lounged on sofas, engrossed with digital devices, while candles flickered in inglenook fireplaces, occasional hints of adult laughter somewhere out of sight. If anywhere, then surely this is where the heart of the nation is to be found, and on this of all nights, in this most turbulent of years? Was this much-needed evidence of a nation at ease with itself?

I’ve never paid very much attention to the repeated suggestions from a number of commentators that there is a crisis of English identity. Not because I necessarily disagree with the premise, but because (despite my roots) English identity simply didn’t interest me very much. I’m not sure what it is, for a start. For all that one gets a certain impression in a small, relatively affluent town in the liminal lands where the Home Counties merge into East Anglia, I was all too aware that it is hardly universal.

At the precise same moment as I was walking, there were rather different scenes being enacted within a matter of tens, or at most a few hundred miles, all of which exert their own claim to the national identity. The mean and glossy streets of the capital are a mere 45 miles away – where both international oligarchs and destitute homeless continue their proximate but parallel lives. I was aware, too, of places I know in the midlands and north, that still feel dour and abandoned decades after the last heavy industry closed. I know of the bed-sit land of faded seaside resorts, the remaining fishers and farmers scraping a living from the northern hills and harbours, and I know about the drug and knife-crime – and the bland, cloned suburbs – of the big towns and cities where nine in ten Britons now live. I wondered what significance a “national identity” could possibly have.

What’s more, I’ve long set my sights further afield: I know communities in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and more, which somehow always seem more appealing, more characterful, more vibrant, and more cared-for. I’ve been to autumnal and Christmas festivities in countries where such things seem to have an intensity, warmth and authenticity that make English efforts look watery and half-hearted. These images, too, are particularly potent in December, not least because their traditions have gradually infiltrated ours, to the point that it isn’t clear any more what ‘English’ actually is.

It’s been a long-term process of course. Much of the English Christmas is a Victorian confection, with a hefty chunk of German import, courtesy of Victoria’s husband. More recently, we’ve added German Christmas markets and stollen, Italian panettone, and Scandinavian hygge. Ironic, really, when you know that much of the community has just voted to cut itself off from Europeanism. And there has, of course, been a hefty and brash dose of Americanism, too.

The thing about Christmas, of course, is tradition: precisely that to which one might turn in search of a nation’s true identity. But once again, I am faced with not knowing what to make of it. A few weeks ago, my town also had a “traditional” Christmas market of its own, an enjoyable community event that happens every year – but dominated by loud pop music and flashing lights. On Christmas Eve, we had carols around the town tree; a good few hundred turned up, but few seemed willing or able to sing very well, and most seemed more interested in the arrival of Santa Claus to the strains of Wizzard’s I Wish it could Be Christmas Every Day. Well, I suppose it has become a tradition of a sort – but it is, for my money, hardly the stuff of national identity, at least not one I would want to identify with.

It is telling that there have been several complaints this year, that the relatively recent import that are Christmas markets is rapidly being turned into just another fest of cheap commercial tat at odds with the experience abroad. That is certainly my experience: every second-rate garden centre now has a few sad kiosks that it brands “Christmas Market” on huge plastic banners along the adjacent trunk roads. Somewhere, something – quite a lot in fact – is being lost. Not only can we not maintain our own genuine traditions, but it seems that we can only debase the imported ones too.

I find it all genuinely saddening. It’s not that I’m humbug. I love the festive season: it is the one time of the year when tradition almost gets the better of my modernist tastes – but it also seems to me to be the time when our lack of authentic English culture – and its replacement with a cheap plastic version that comes pre-assembled and microwave-ready, is at its most blatant and repulsive.

Yet the article cast a rather different light on this. It struck home where others have not, because it argued that Englishness is in crisis precisely because it has, for too many for too long, been defined by the absence of something. To feel English is to feel the loss of something that other cultures still seem to have. To be English is to be not-Scottish, -Irish or -Welsh: to be part of the majority-hordes of these islands for whom an authentic identity is not allowed. For many, it seems it is also be emphatically not-European.

It has only been amplified by the resurgence of Scottish, Irish and Welsh identities with the United Kingdom, and it is indeed very easy to feel that England is missing out on something. This was something I could identify with: in most of my experiences of my supposedly own culture I repeatedly get an uneasy sense that it is fake, or at best contrived. It is perhaps why my own need for identity has sent me looking elsewhere. For all that the English think they are a tradition-loving nation par excellence, the supposed tradition with which they seem to identify is a plastic confection of commercialism, sentimentality and low-brow popular entertainment. In fact, when presented with the earthiness of real, ancient English pagan-derived tradition, most recoil in horror.

The “traditional” English Christmas seems to me to be a sickly confection of middlebrow convention lashed together roughly between the years of 1850 and 1950, whose main purpose is to boost commerce. And like everything in this country, it is heavily class-based. The ideal Christmas descends from notions of quasi-Victorian middle-classness – and for those who can’t muster the considerable means now needed to do that properly, there is a synthetic, plastic version on offer, which was until some years ago characterised by Noel Edmonds’ facile jollity and loud pullovers on the BBC.

What perhaps hit home hardest about the article was its suggestion that those, like me, whose Europeanism has been such an important part of our lives – soon to be torn away – are in fact simply experiencing a different manifestation of the same difficulty.

In identifying closely with other countries and their cultures, we are, it suggested seeking a surrogate for our own lack of identity. It is a suggestion that resonated strongly. Why is it that we admire the Christmas traditions of Germany, Italy, Scandinavia – and yet somehow little of our own makes much of an impact? Why is it that we seek the cuisines, lifestyles, durables, furnishing and fashions of elsewhere? Why is it that English offerings seem pale and insubstantial by comparison? Even within the British context, I find much more to attract me in the Scottish and Irish identities, an experience compounded by an inexplicable fascination I have had with the landscapes, places and traditional music of those cultures since childhood. Could it be that even as a child I somehow latched onto places that could provide something that was missing from my bland English non-identity?

The more one thinks about the issue of identity, the more perplexing it becomes – not least because I have a large suspicion that it is like looking for trees and barely seeing even a wood: when one is ‘inside’ a culture, it is simply not visible. The icons, habits and thoughts that comprise it are simply the stuff of everyday life, so familiar that they seem devoid of the distinctiveness that one perceives when looking in on someone else’s culture from the outside.

In a way, that is rather sad: it means that the only cultures we can ever truly appreciate are ones that are not our own. I must say, though, that other cultures I have experienced seem fully aware of their own cultural selves, and revel in them to a degree that the English would probably find embarrassing. In another, it might offer reassurance that English culture is not as non-existent as it might seem. Perhaps we are simply looking too hard for something that is, by definition, too innate to see. Those digital devices, plastic decorations, fake traditions, loud music and louder pullovers are English culture. The trouble is, I just don’t like it.

(to be continued)

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Tech made sexy…

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A regular reader – it seems there are such creatures lurking out there – observed that there hasn’t been much “living well” (as in the strap-line), here for a while. (“Too much heavy politics”…)

I pointed out that living life well is not always the same as “the good life”. Epicureans don’t have a monopoly: it is possible to be a Sceptic, or even a Stoic and still “live life well”. All depends on your expectations…

In recent times, the situation in my home country has been such that trying to live well has indeed involved a significant degree of political and cultural soul-searching. But that’s all part of it: I’m not convinced that living in cossetted but mindless luxury really is “living well” in any case. Trying to face life’s tribulations in a reflective, intelligent manner is surely part of it too.

Even though my interpretation of sprezzatura goes well beyond the original, I would argue that beneath the apparently effortless elegance of a certain way in which some Italian men dress lies rather more thought and even soul-searching, not to mention a willingness to subvert the norms, than is at first apparent. In other words, it means being original and authentic, taking the best of convention, but to bending it to your own authentic self. All I’m doing is taking that idea beyond clothing…

But it’s true, we shouldn’t neglect the more material aspects of life. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that.

Which is all a rather long preamble to a deliberately trivial post.

Microsoft is ceasing security support for Windows 7 in January next year; despite several attempts, my old machine resolutely refused to install the free upgrades to Windows 10 that were offered earlier this year – and so the only alternative gradually narrowed down to the purchase of a new machine. Despite some concerns over the sustainability of such a move purely on software grounds, this has now been done. I need a desktop computer because I undertake quite a lot of design work for my published articles and personal interests, which is much less easily done on a portable device. But I don’t see why even a relatively functional activity like using a computer shouldn’t make its own contribution to a generally well-lived life.

The purchase prompted a major re-organisation and repaint of the multipurpose room where I do my work. Computer design has advanced in huge steps in recent years, no doubt driven by Apple, but now extending to more affordable machines like the excellent all-in-one HP model just purchased.

I first used computers in the early 1980’s, and even then, I thought that the techie guys had missed a trick when it came to wrapping their amazing goodies in something better than a boring black box. Here’s a reminder of the way we were:

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Forty years on, and they finally seem to have realised that for many people, awesome microprocessors aren’t enough…

There’s no doubt that writing in a light, bright environment on an aesthetically pleasing device is materially a vastly better experience, particularly in these short, dark, dog-days of the year. It  has more than repaid the effort (and expenditure) required. Sometimes, progress is real.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Ditch the Dogma?

I have never belonged to a political party. Well, almost never. I joined the Labour Party for a short while, with the explicit intention of electing Jeremy Corbyn. I believed – and still do – that his policies were what the country needs at present. (It was the only time in my life where my vote has had any meaningful effect. Afterwards, my membership lapsed, as I felt the job was done, and the Party should not be further influenced by arrivistes).

For what it’s worth, I still think that move was successful. For all Corbyn’s subsequent disappointments, he has succeeded in shifting the national agenda to the Left. He put properly social-democratic policies back into the public arena. That may be his legacy.

But after the initial shock of last week’s election result, I have a problem. I have inadvertently found myself not disagreeing with a few of the things Boris Johnson has now said. I am entirely aware of the great likelihood that much of it is hot air, perhaps even intentionally so. I am not about to start trusting the man one iota. But more than that, as I said above, I am not and never will be, dogmatically partisan.

My political decisions derive purely from aligning my wishes and beliefs for my country with a party that says it will deliver them. It has never been a perfect fit; that’s life. Normally I have been best accommodated by the left-of-centre parties. But if another part of the political spectrum starts making noises that I agree with, why should I dismiss them purely on tribal grounds? Not doing so is surely the mark of a modern, independent-minded voter, and of politics working properly. A bigger failure was the tradition of voting tribally, according to generations of family loyalty, with one party sanctified and the others condemned purely as a matter of ritual.

In the last days, Johnson has reportedly said:

  • The Conservative Party needs to change for good. Err, yes.
  • The government’s newly-elected northern MPs need to “deliver” for their constituencies. Err, yes.
  • That those northern votes are probably only loaned to the Conservatives. Err, yes.
  • That he has “got the message” on the NHS and will enshrine higher spending in Law. Err, yes.
  • That he will invest in rail transport and other infrastructure. Err, yes.
  • That we need to come together as a nation. Err, yes.
  • That we will shake up the Civil Service. Err, yes – with reservations over how and why.

It’s hardly a full manifesto-worth of agreement, and once again, I concede that what he says and what he does may well be very different things – but he would hardly be the first politician for whom that was true. Yet if what I perceive as the ‘right’ decisions are made for the country, does it really matter very much who makes them? Isn’t that the whole point of representational politics?

I have read much about the poor state of British government. There are plenty of authoritative, independent writers such as Anthony King who advocated a major overhaul of the Civil Service years ago. Its upper echelons have possibly been a major obstacle to change in Britain for too long. There was a reason so many politicians loved Sir Humphrey Appleby: they recognised the accuracy of the character. For all that Appleby has a point (below) surely the prospect of dismantling such pillars of the establishment ought to appeal to the Left?

There are clearly big risks – not that the nation now has much choice but run with them. Regrettably, matters such as electoral reform are probably once again out of the question for the time being: Johnson hardly has the incentive to look at it.

And then there is the matter of Brexit. On this, I am resolutely and implacably opposed to Johnson’s past direction of travel. It is a defining matter;  even alone it ensures that I will never actually vote Conservative.

But that does not imply there is nothing to be done. It pays to listen to your opponents. The much-despised Dominic Cummings is no fool, and he may have a point when he claims that the Remain movement inadvertently hardened the likely outcome by making compromise more difficult. Johnson is now largely free of the need to pander to Nigel Farage and his own hard-liners too, if he so chooses. There is some evidence to suggest that he is not a hard Brexiter by instinct. As a teacher, I know there are times when you have to put your foot down, to over-state your case.

There have been a few other noises from Conservative MPs about recognising the depth of feeling of pro-Europeans. That itself is progress. Sometimes, in order to achieve (some of) your objectives, it is also necessary to give some ground in order to allow your opponent to come towards a mid-point. So there is perhaps still a slim chance that Brexit will be soft, which while still objectionable, is less so than the other type. 

An underlying tenet of the Remain campaign is presumably that it values European ways of doing things. When it comes to politics, the ‘European Way’ involves talking to your opponents, trying to find consensus and compromise, metaphorically holding your nose – and working with them where possible. That approach was also defended by the Left over Corbyn’s contact with various rebel groups.

By contrast, the stubborn tribalism seen in the Brexit conflict – which involved a bunker mentality on both sides – did nothing more than perpetuate the traditionally confrontational nature of British politics. It is all too evident where that has now led. For all that pro-Europeans portray themselves as compassionate, reasonable people, there has been a lot of talk that does not really fit that description, even if it didn’t quite plumb the depths of the Brexiters. No matter how much they feel they were forced into this, the ‘big’ thing to do now is to play a part in the reconciliation process. It will not be easy – but that is the European approach. The Far Right, in particular thrives on uncompromising attitudes from others; this somehow needs to be defused rather than stoked.

There is a need to start looking for places, no matter how slim, where agreement can be found. Perhaps the starting point is the relative consensus about the fundamental problems facing this country, irrespective of their attributed causes.

Pro-Europeans do not need to set aside their views; indeed they need to argue for them all the more strongly in future. Part of the European movement’s failure has been the absence of challenge to forty years of misinformation; that needs to change. But there is now a need to engage with the opposition in the hope that at least a tolerable compromise can be reached. Has Johnson just hinted at willingness?

There is a strong possibility that I am being too optimistic, born from nothing more than temporary relief at the removal of uncertainty. Fundamental beliefs need to be protected. Extreme caution will be very necessary. But I think we should not be too hasty to condemn developments that have not yet happened, which may be born more of fear and disillusionment than clear thinking – and we should also be ready to endorse positive actions if and when they do occur – even if they are a compromise on our ideal situation – and even – perhaps especially? – when they come from our opponents.

In this, I think the EU itself has been a model institution: willing beyond the call of duty to engage with a withdrawing UK despite its regret at the situation, standing firm on its own fundamental position – and seeking a workable compromise.

That is the modern European way.