Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Google-bombing Europe – or a nation in ten pictures.

One way of assessing the condition of a nation is to look at its landscapes. There are of course many factors that influence the physical appearance of an area: the topography, the climate, the ecology, geology and so on.

But part of the equation is also the prevailing social and economic conditions. The landscapes reflect the way in which a nation manages its territory: the levels of investment, the planning systems, the architectural requirements, the attitudes and expectations of the people towards their surroundings, the history of the nation.

Google Earth presents a fantastic opportunity for surveying such things, so I thought I would conduct a small experiment to see what could be found with as objective an approach as is reasonably possible.

In coming posts, I am going to present sequences of ten photographs chosen more or less at random by ‘dropping in’ on places. I will mostly leave readers to draw their own conclusions, but if I do have a point to prove, it is that the care and effort put into the surroundings in different countries does vary significantly – and that it makes a material difference to the places in which people live, physical conditions notwithstanding. I suppose I should also confess my expectation that the U.K. does not fare particularly well in terms of its built environment.

The ‘rules’ I set myself were:
1. Set the camera at an altitude of about 500km (high enough to take in a large part of the country, and to obscure any obvious features).
2. Drag the peg-man and drop before the map has stopped moving, thus making the destination as random as possible.
3. When the image resolves, ‘permission’ is granted to take a 360 degree look around and choose the most interesting view.
4. Not to move the camera laterally from where it falls.
5. One reject allowed in each ten samples to allow for tedious repetition or utterly bland images that show nothing of interest.
6. The above accepted, aim for reasonable spatial coverage – e.g. don’t just drop the peg in the middle of the country each time.

In some cases, it is even possible to land inside a building, which can reveal things about the style and quality of interiors.

A perhaps surprising thing is how rarely one lands in the centre of a major urban area: while these dominate the social climate in a country, in spatial terms, they are very small. One lands far more frequently in open countryside (which is reassuring in a certain way) and, in the U.K. at least in identikit suburbs (which is perhaps less so).

Ten pictures are hardly enough to present a coherent impression of a country, and by definition a random sample may be neither consistent nor representative. But as a random slice through the combined effects of physical and human activity, they can perhaps tell us something. The first two countries presented here are Germany and the U.K. More to follow in subsequent posts.

Germany:D01D02D03D04D05D06D07D08D09D10

The U.K.:

UK01UK02UK03UK04UK05UK06UK07UK08UK09UK10

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Empty vessels….are world class.

We in Britain are regularly regaled with the claim that every next new thing is going to be ‘world class’. Methinks the country doth protest too much: anywhere that needs to bang on like this with such tedious regularity deep down knows that it is way off the mark. But it’s cheaper and easier to slap the ‘W-C’ label on something than actually do anything about it. But too often, that abbreviation really does have a better meaning.

Case in question is the new Swiss-made trains shortly to be delivered for my local Greater Anglia rail service. (Non rail-enthusiasts bear with me here – there is a wider point coming…) Knowing Swiss Railways inside out, I leapt with anticipation when the announcement was made a couple of years ago that Anglia would be the first British franchise to be buying Swiss in a big way.

Now I generally have a favourable view of Greater Anglia as being one of the more enlightened franchisees – probably something to do with their in reality being Dutch. And it is true that excellent cycle facilities now abound at stations all over their network.

But an article in the industry-journal Modern Railways suggests that once again, the new trains represent a missed opportunity. The first train is due in the U.K. about now, and I await visual confirmation that we do have proper Swiss build-quality.

But the insides are as dull as every other British train. Anglia claims to have focus-group tested the designs – but as the MR article points out, people can only compare against what they know. And in the case of British trains, that is not a great start.

Comments from the manufacturer also sound underwhelmed with the end result – but they pointed out that they only deliver what the customer asks for. How Swiss. But that lays the blame for this lost opportunity firmly back at the British end of the contract.

It is of course true that British trains are smaller than continental ones, and that does create real problems – but why does Britain have seat-specifications (supposedly in the name of safety – read litigation) far in excess of what the EU requires – and which rule out most of the better seating in use elsewhere? It leaves us with ultra-high backs which render the interior claustrophobic, while fire standards mean that almost no padding can be provided – hence recent widespread complaints about how hard the seats are in new trains. It is most definitely NOT that pesky EU spoiling our chance to have good old British rubbish here.

The real problem is that those who specifiy British train design are more concerned with maximising capacity (hence revenue) and minimising repair costs. It is also the case that many who profess to be impressed quite possibly haven’t seen the alternatives available in other countries. And yet the country persists with the ridiculous nonsense about world-class everything. It kids no-one with a slightly wider perspective.

While train design might hardly seem to be a world-stopping issue, this matter serves to illustrate some wider issues:

1) Poverty of expectation in this country is alive and well and expressed in things as everyday as trains. It is partly because so few experience what happens elsewhere.

2) Short-term, profit-driven so-called public services will only ever deliver bargain-basement quality because of the need to make a quick return.

3) ‘World-class’ actually means precisely the opposite. It is an excuse for having to think genuinely hard about getting something right.

4) This country never learns. And that includes the fact that in many cases, standards really are higher on the continent. I expect that these trains really will represent an improvement on what went before – but that is more an indictment of the past, rather than much to crow about. We are still a good way off the best.

Never mind, soon with our World-Class Brexit we will officially soon be officially rid of those pesky continentals and their ludicrous ideas – and we can carry on doing World-Class mediocre to our hearts’ content.

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The new Greater Anglia ‘Flirt’ unit. Not bad from the outside, though it would be better without the non non-obligatory yellow end.
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Yep, this is definitely the same train – albeit built to rather larger continental dimensions…
tn_gb_stadler_flirt_greater_anglia_interior_2 (1)
The cramped and grey standard class interior of the GA unit. Still, at least we have continental-style window blinds.
stadler_flirt_sobvoralpen06Südostbahn
The equivalent interior for the Swiss Sud-Ostbahn. Respective interior specifications courtesy of the customer consultation.
First-class, Swiss-style. Admittedly, also a bit grey.
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On-board catering. When will British providers (of almost anything) stop banging on about being world-class while diluting standards for the U.K. market?
Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Your starter for ten…

Here is a little analytical challenge for a Monday morning. I produced it as a self-challenge to my preconceptions about the quality of life in other (mostly European) countries. The graph below shows the murder rate per million of population of selected countries. The data all derives from the same year, 2016 and is drawn via Wikipedia from apparently reputable sources. My source can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate

murder stats graph 2

The challenge I presented myself was simply to test the preconception that there are some countries that are much more socially stable than others. To my mind, that is a key determinant of a ‘successful’ country, one that might be held up as an example to others. Murder rates might be considered a suitable indicator of such. My experience, for example, of Germany and Switzerland is that they are so law-abiding and generally well-run that nothing truly, intentionally bad ever happens there. It is an illusion of course, and I know that.

But stereotypes are powerful. How easy is it to imagine a Swiss or German company being guilty of malpractice? The Volkswagen emissions scandal shows it can and does happen. Temptation is the same everywhere I guess, though the extent to which people act on it may not be. And temperament varies too.

Did I succeed? Well, only in part. There are considerable differences between murder rates (and that is without considering the absolute figures, which seem only partially reflect total population size).

I suggest that homicide rates are a reasonable indicator of social stability. The rise in knife-crime in the U.K. cannot be without its causes. So make of this self-created graph what you will. I know there are distortions introduced into the rankings, for example by the fact that I have not included all countries. In general, I have left out the smaller states except where they perhaps provided insight. In general, smaller nations seem to have lower homicide rates – from which we might learn something.

With my strong reservations about the way British society operates, I expected the U.K. to be towards the upper end of the European rankings – which it is. But so are France and Germany, the latter of which in particular I did not expect. On the other hand, Italy is not as much higher than the U.K. as might have been expected. I suppose we should also accept that the figures are only for reported murders; who knows what else goes on in some places…

Maybe we should simply conclude that there are certain factors at work in larger populations (increased anonymity perhaps) that affect perceptions of our fellows.

And it is also noticeable that some of the countries held up for their good social model seem to have higher than (I) expected murder rates, for example Finland and Sweden. I wonder if environmental factors are at work there – but then, Norway is lower. And even in the seemingly-model society of Switzerland (often held up as one of the world’s most civilised places to live), 45 murders happened in 2016. Personally, I have never met a Swiss who seemed capable of killing a fly… But it is necessary to remember that thanks to military service, the Swiss have loose gun-laws compared with the rest of Europe, and I suppose some people (including some Swiss I know, but not I) would instinctively blame their high immigrant populations. Who knows the truth?

Before jumping to too many conclusions, I suppose one should really conduct a much more detailed study of the circumstances and motives for murders, which might tell us much more than relatively raw totals.

The stark contrast with Russia and the USA are not a surprise – but might still teach us something about contrasting social models. The authorities in the U.S. had to deal with 17250 murders in 2016 alone. And spare a thought for Brazil, with its rate of 295 per million, or 61283 murders in that same year…

Travel

The joys of (near) home…

How often is it the case that one overlooks the benefits of the familiar? I suspect I’m not the only one who tends not to venture out into my nearer region as often as I should. Though my new walking regime has at least encouraged a move in the right direction.

East Anglia is not exactly known for its dramatic scenery – but what it does do well is miniatures – small, quiet and often very picturesque corners. Dedham Vale, part of the Stour Valley, on the border between Essex and Suffolk is one such area: now designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it was the subject of many paintings by John Constable.

Even though both the A12 trunk road and the main railway line cross the area, the tranquility is surprisingly rarely broken, though the small road in one of the pictures below was a lot busier than one might expect, it being a cut-through to the railway station at Manningtree, whence commuters head for Liverpool Street Station in London.

The weather was on its best behaviour yesterday, for a walk from Dedham to Flatford Mill, which Constable painted several times, and back. There is a pleasant National Trust cafe at the Mill, which has become a centre for nature studies in the area. A selection of pictures taken along the river and back in Dedham, itself give a taste…

Very pleasant for an early-autumn walk; with thanks to my two companions for a good day out.

 

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Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Pinch-point?

The Britain I grew into in my formative years was a stable, safe and benign place. Green and pleasant, even. My parents were teachers, whose income permitted a secure if fairly modest way of life, and over time their hard work permitted progress to a better home and a more comfortable way of life.

From my South-Western perspective, general British life held every hope of my own following a similar pattern. But I was aware that the same was not true everywhere: journeys to family in the Midlands, and later further north revealed a country pock-marked by industrial decline, many of whose towns and cities were dowdy, declining places where life was basic, and getting worse. Despite my own good fortune, my memories of the period include images of national decline and industrial strife, not to mention the desperate situation in Northern Ireland; the trajectory seemed to lead inexorably downward.

Yet much of my recent reading has hailed the Seventies as the tail-end of the most egalitarian period in Britain’s history, when people like my parents had the best ever chances of social and material progress.

The about-turn of the late 1980s came as a welcome shock: it seemed that, after all, Britain was capable of being a positive, colourful and dynamic place where optimism ruled. Thatcher’s revolution did indeed seem to be turning the country around, something I encountered most strongly when I landed in the South-East in 1987, where wealth was clearly being generated and a revival was underway.

But it quickly became evident that a teacher like me had already been priced out: on my salary of £8500, at £35,000 even a terraced house was already out of reach, and I was forced to rent rooms for the first eight years of my career. But I could see people all around who were buying fast cars, furnishing desirable homes and taking glamorous holidays. Somehow I accepted the suggestion that it was not for the likes of me.

In the interim, we have been presented with an image of a Britain as the economic innovator of Europe, a thrusting buccaneer of the deregulated market. And the number of towers visible on the journey into London has indeed mushroomed ever since. Large areas of the East End are unrecognisable from the dereliction that I used to travel through. Even parts of the great northern cities have followed suit.

And yet mid-way through 2018, with Brexit a mere six months away, I feel increasingly bewildered about the nation of which I am a part. I wonder whether I really knew it all along – or whether the last forty years have been one enormous confidence trick. A recent visit to Italy only served to amplify this – and I made the ‘mistake’ of reading Danny Dorling’s blood-pressure-raising book Inequality and the 1% on the way home.

The great national revival of the last few decades seems to have got us – or at least most of us – nowhere. Much of the gloss put on the state of the nation ever since has done nothing more than paper over the long-standing structural weaknesses which have never been properly repaired, and are now all too visible again.

While life has continued to get better and better for the former Yuppies, everyone else has been left behind. It’s glaringly obvious to me that it was the same people who trashed the economy in 2008 who were racing their Porsches around the M25 a few decades earlier. They have been feathering their own nests at everyone else’s expense ever since – only now they control the system too. I find it all the more galling that they are the people who, as a grammar-school first-year I looked up to as the responsible sixth formers.

The Crash and Brexit have done nothing more than reveal the rottenness that has been there all along: the extent to which this country still mostly operates in the interests of a small elite of often-hereditary wealthy, who have been joined by a new breed of narcissistic sociopath who can only see the rest of the population as the suckers from whom as much should be taken as possible, and who lack even the social conscience – such as it was – of the traditional higher orders.

The great (financial) services sector on which Thatcher built our new economy has utterly failed to enrich the nation at large, or to deal with its structural and attitudinal problems. Those whom it did help have pulled up the ladders behind them. Beyond the newly-glossy city centres, not much has really changed either in the depressed places ‘up north’ – or the smaller towns have had even less attention from a polity whose entire focus was city – and mostly London – centric.

The hollowing out has picked up where it left off. It has become acceptable that services for the least fortunate have been pared back, that food banks are a fact of life, and that there is almost no welfare state to act as a safety net. Much of what passes for national life has been built on access to cheap credit that has ultimately only enriched the already-wealthy. And much of the rest of the country is being bricked over with amenity-less, community-free rabbit hutches whose main purpose is also to enrich the companies that build them and the landlords who let them.

This has been further driven home by my own circumstances: while we are hardly a priority case, the lack of realistic hope of accessing any support since I lost too my job (partly as a result of public-sector cost-cutting) has had a severe impact on our circumstances. Such is the over-demand, my G.P, recommended I go private for mental health services when I needed them quickly, at a cost well into four figures, when we could least afford it. It had to be done.

As someone who paid all his taxes and National Insurance, who did a demanding, socially-conscious job – and who made no call on that same ‘insurance policy’ beyond the odd bit of health care (having no children, we have never drawn even child allowances or used the school system), I can’t help but feel we were sold a pup. So much for the social ideals and ‘guarantees’ of the post-war period. So much for the customer being king: thanks to the free-marketeers, the British welfare state has become a rubbish product.

But this is not a personal sob story: my own situation is only (mildly) reflective of the real, deep difficulties encountered by too many in this country. But if it is affecting even a middle-class professional like me, there must be something deeply wrong.

One observation in Dorling’s book startled me. Rather naively, I believed that the riches hoarded by the well-off were somehow additional to the rest of the nation’s wealth. But it is not so: the more the 1% takes, the less there is for everyone else. There is a direct correlation between inequality and general means – and it explains why, in less unequal countries that I know, even my peers have noticeably more resources than their British equivalents.

To put it starkly: one person whose income is 20 times higher than the national average is actively depriving another nineteen of a significant share of the national wealth, that might be distributed amongst them, or spent on the general good. The enrichment of the 1% actively contributes to the impoverishment of the rest – and not only those at the bottom, for all that they fare the worst.

Trickle-down theories of wealth have been shown not to work: the more the 1% acquires the greater lengths it goes to, to make sure it keeps hold of as much as possible. The argument for high taxation is often rebutted on the grounds that it raises relatively little revenue; while this may be true, it does suppress the incentives for the avaricious, low-conscience few from hoarding so much in the first place. An altogether more convincing case.

It becomes increasingly clear that the self-image that this nation still holds dear is – as it always has been – almost entirely the fabrication of a small, extremely privileged group for whom life is very good indeed. Their brilliance was in selling it so successfully to the rest, to the extent that it is, even today, more ingrained than we imagine.

The approach of Brexit has led to more such drum-banging by those most likely to be insulated from its effects. They feel entitled to do so because they feel entitled about life in general, in a way I don’t encounter in more democratic countries – and they care little about the free-fall that the rest of the nation is experiencing.

But Brexit, as with the Crash and M.P.s’ expenses scandal has presented the privileged classes with crises that even they have not been able to cover up entirely. Above all, Brexit has faced our ‘exemplary’ democratic system with a dilemma that it simply cannot handle. It has not been maintained well enough by those self-same ruling classes to do so in any meaning of the General Good.

 

I sense this country is approaching a critical moment in its history: something dramatic which in itself, we never expect to experience in Britain. Brexit may well prove to be the trigger for even bigger changes to come. I don’t know what, but something is going to happen. And I don’t trust or believe that it will be brought about by the existing order, who show time and again that they only ever look after their own. May’s instincts are as authoritarian as Thatcher’s – itself ironic since neither came from the traditional ruling classes.

The double-nelson in which the elite holds the nation makes it likely that we will follow the U.S. down its lonely path to ever greater inequality, to depths that even this country has yet to experience. Or could it be that this will be the spark-point for something that puts us back on the path that almost all other advanced nations have been following while we and Uncle Sam were fooling with our free market nonsense? Nations where inequalities have fallen, and even now are being held in check to a degree that the British system (which actually fuels them) has failed to do.

What will be the effect of changing demographics and life-chances on the nation as a whole? I find it hard to believe that we can maintain business as usual for much longer.

It’s an illusion to believe that other countries don’t have problems. Italy has more than its share – but they have something right, because at least in the north, their towns are vibrant, thriving places, and their communities still seem to be socially connected. It is visible to anyone who visits. This in contrast to the atomised, hollowed out lives and places that are too much a feature of this country, even in parts that have sufficient wealth that one might expect them to be different.

And there are plenty of other countries nearby who seem to be weathering the challenges of our era far better than Britain. Post-War, they built stronger foundations.

My overwhelming sense at present is of confusion: of not knowing my own nation any more. Everything I thought I knew about it turns out to be built of the sand of blithe assurances and myth-building by a class who were working to an entirely different agenda all along. Even now they continue to present a public facade of implacable self-assurance. It’s all they know how to do, even in the face of a nation that can now see right through it.

At last they and their blathering have been revealed for what they are – but is it too late for a nation in a tail-spin? As/if we leave the EU (whose main ‘threat’ to this country is its tendency to undermine elites in the name of perhaps-idealistic democracy) how will we pull out of the nose-dive?

Opinion & Thought, Travel

Bologna la buona

What better way to start the day?

After far too long a break, we found ourselves back in Sprezzatura’s spiritual homeland this week. After a couple of years in which travel has been difficult, we spent a few days in Bologna – and much good it did me. It was my fourth visit to the city, which is rather overlooked in comparison with Florence, Venice and Sienna. A business centre it may be, but in some ways all the better for it. Unlike the honeypots, the city is not drowning in tourists, and you do feel as though you are seeing something close to the real place rather than a pastiche put on for visitors. You don’t hear very much being spoken in the streets other than Italian.

While it perhaps lacks the top-division attractions of those other cities, it has plenty of very attractive quarters, and is also a great place just for wandering. Many of its streets are lined with colonnades which make walking a pleasure, shielding both the summer sun and winter rain. And there is an infinite supply of entrancing shops and bars just asking to be sampled. A visit had to be made to the local branch of Boggi, albeit for only a small treat…

I prefer this to Lakeside.
Pity about the red plastic

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It is home to the oldest university in the world, and also some of Italy’s best food. And it has an airport that is a mere 30 minutes away by shuttle bus.

Equally welcome was the fact that despite the current sterling-Euro exchange rate, Bologna is still affordable – again it escapes the ritual milking of the tourist market.

We rented a small but nicely contemporary apartment in a small street right in the centre; the nearest espresso was about 30 seconds away. We were also spoilt for eateries within about a ten minute walk, and just around the corner were the entertainingly chi-chi boutiques of the Via San Felice. Within about five minutes’ walk was the Mercato delle Erbe, an indoor market where cheeses, hams, bread, fruit, vegetables fresh pasta and just about every other culinary product of Italy could be bought – useful for ad hoc lunches.

Most of the sights can be covered on foot in a couple of hours – but the good thing about Bologna, as previously mentioned, is that it is just a great place for hanging out, wandering and people-watching. You don’t really need to be doing very much at all: the free show of great style and the natural vigour of Italian street life are entertaining enough on their own. You can be pretty sure that every classic image of Italian life will come by within a few minutes….

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Could you wear those colours in Britain?

On our second day, we caught the train to Parma, a place to which a pilgrimage has been long-overdue. The hour on the regionale cost a mere £11 return. We were surprised at how low-key Parma is too: another (smaller) very attractive town, but seemingly mostly still ‘owned’ by its locals, with only relatively restrained evidence of its exquisite culinary wares. Nonetheless, insalata parmenese was an indispensible choice for lunch…

Parma doing what Parma does best
Parma: duomo

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You can pack a good amount into a mere three nights away, and the trip proved to be an excellent tonic after the trials of the past two years. And the temperatures still in the low thirties in mid September were welcome too, though we are feeling unseasonably chilly now back home…

It’s always very difficult to know how accurate an impression one is getting when visiting foreign places, and it is all too easy to draw inaccurate conclusions from what are inevitably generalisations, and perhaps not fully realistic ones either. Italy has many difficulties, but its general deficit vis à vis the U.K. has clearly shrunk in recent years: much work has been done to tackle the decline I saw when I first visited in the late ‘80s. Even the trains are much less clapped out than they were, and while I hesitate to admit this, the wider presence of English does make functioning easier than it used to be, when one hadn’t a hope against the torrent of Italian one generally received in return for venturing even a little in their own language…

I wouldn’t dream of living in most cities in Britain: despite their own good progress, they are too often too large, too characterless and too suburban to be pleasurable, with the good bits being out of the reach of ordinary mortals. By contrast, Italian cities throb with down-to-earth vitality, no doubt in large part due to the fact that many people do still live right in the centre. Many of the same urban pressures must exist in Italy too, and yet they still manage to produce places that are chaotic, intense and immensely vibrant, where one could easily imagine living. And it is that verve for everyday good living, rather than its organisational abilities, that makes Italy simply a fantastic, inspirational place.