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England – and the lure of the Exotic

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Italian days 2010

We English are a contrary lot. We spend a lot of time banging the drum for the supposed virtues of our own country, while simultaneously yearning for all the things that we perceive it is not. We have a long tradition of enchantment with the exotic, which probably comes from living on an island, from which escape takes some effort.

Maybe it is also something to do with living in a place which whose climate old-fashioned geography books used to describe as ‘equable’ and whose terrain is never much more than mildly challenging, when compared with that found in some places elsewhere. We have become masters of the dull and ordinary, trumpeting the virtues of that – and in parallel wishing we could be somewhere else.

‘Exotic’ is, of course, relative. The meaning of the word implies mild culture shock: encounters with places,people and things that are not familiar. And in that sense, England would seem exotic too, if you happen to come from the Yanomami tribe of the Brazilian Amazon.

I’m no different, I suppose. I spend a lot of my time thinking about the places that I love, though being somewhat cowardly, I like my exotic fairly mild, and am usually content with places further into Europe. That’s what draws me to the savoir-vivre of France, the dolce vita of Italy, and even the rather more low-key crisp and sometimes chic  efficiency of Germany and Switzerland.

There is more to it than that, though, because there are many things about those places that I admire which I know are more than skin-deep. To my mind, there is a clear culture-gap between these islands and our neighbouring continent – and I’m not certain that the appeal of many of their ways is only down to the appeal of the different, or exotic.

The difficulty comes when you try to emulate it at home. For the last month or more, the temperatures in Britain have been on a par with those more normally found in southern parts of France or northern Italy. It’s what we spend a lot of time yearning for – and yet the ways people are reacting (or not) are instructive.

I’m ignoring the media hype, and thinking about everyday life. Not the novelty has worn off, people have started complaining about the heat and craving rain. Well, if you’re a gardener, I can understand why – though our peppers and melons are doing exceptionally well this year – and I’m not sure they would even really need their poly-tunnel, inside which it is in the low 40s. I’m even noticing a gradual change in what people are wearing: the number of loose, lightweight flowing garments and brighter colours seem to be on the increase – a distinct improvement on the normal dull British turn-out. Tight denim and trainers are just too hot in this weather.

I wonder what people are eating. For once, our preferred Mediterranean-style diet doesn’t seem out of place, and neither does sitting outside to eat on days when the air is as warm until late in the evening as we find it on the continent. I’m not sure I would want to be eating burgers and chips in this weather, even if that were my normal preference.

And yet certain other things don’t seem to change. Unlike in the regularly warm countries, people don’t seem to be slowing down much. They are muscling on through the daily routine – though to be fair, I suppose daily life continues as normal in the south too, even when it is hot. But in the U.K. people struggle and grumble; I wonder how many are staying indoors in the relative cool during the heat of the day. Working days don’t really allow for it of course – but maybe we should adopt Spanish practice and take a siesta, at least temporarily? What would it take to do that?

More puzzlingly, evening life doesn’t seem to have adjusted. Having spent the day either sweltering, or taking refuge indoors, it is pleasant to get out and about in the relative cool of the evening. That’s where the Italian passeggiata comes from – and the general tendency of those cultures to live long into the night. But even in our small town, the streets are deserted in the evenings. Some are away on holiday, but the evidence suggests that people remain sweltering inside, as glued to their T.V.s as ever. Ours really is not an outdoor culture, for all we go on about it.

So here we are, basking in the kind of temperatures that we spend much of our year craving – and what are we doing with it? Not a lot, really. It is worth remembering that our current temperatures are just normal for places further south, where we often holiday. One hot summer is not enough to bring about real cultural change – but one can wonder what will happen if this is a foretaste of what is to come more frequently as global warming takes hold. Will the Brits adapt and become more like the southerners are today? Will our gardens become more like those dreamy places in Provence or Tuscany which thrive on hot dry weather (as my oleander and palms are doing this summer)? Or will we just sit at home amongst our new-found exoticism and yearn for the lost ordinariness of England?

Because, of course, when this becomes the norm, it will stop being exotic at all.

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English nights 2018
Food, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Whatever happened to the Great British food revolution?

 

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Great architecture; food less so…

 

Not so long ago, this country spent much time congratulating itself on how it had transformed itself from the culinary dunce of the modern world into its finest destination. New eateries seemed to be popping up on a weekly basis, and the quality and choice on offer was always improving. So what happened?

I have no doubt there are now many more good places to eat in Britain than used to be the case, some of which I have mentioned previously in this blog – but as always, we seem to have fallen victim to faddism, of which veganism is probably just the latest manifestation. This, in my mind, is not the transformation that was being claimed, and given the disparities I see between the foodie culture being purveyed in the media (much of which I suspect is consumed vicariously) and what trundles down the average supermarket checkout conveyor, I wonder whether anything has really changed.

For the increased niceties of the top end do not a revolution make. Far more important in my view are the daily habits of the population at large. Here at Sprezz. H.Q. I can claim with pride, but more importantly honesty, that food is prepared from scratch on a daily basis, wherever possible using fresh ingredients from the unassuming local farm shop. It is not posh food, more often than not a bowl of pasta or a salad with a few comfortable old favourites regularly thrown in for good measure. But even this may be unusual – who knows?

A recent visit to Lincoln reinforced my doubts. I hadn’t been to that city since childhood, and it was indeed a pleasant place to spend a couple of days. The cathedral and its close are very fine, and even the more mundane parts have benefitted from a seemingly-attentive local council and the arrival of one of the country’s more successful new universities.

The place clearly has some wealth (which I mention inasmuch as it may indicate the existence of foodie types), but it is by no means all gentrified. We enjoyed our couple of days there – but the one disappointment was the food. This is not a ‘pop’ at Lincoln, for I suspect the issue is equally true of most British towns; we certainly found the same to be true in Newark, where we called en route, and our local towns don’t seem to be very different either. In fact, things seem to have gone downhill in recent years. The vast majority of eateries that we found were either the usual clone-chains (which have colonised Lincoln’s pleasant waterfront as predictably as they have in Poole, Ipswich and most other places) – and those independents that we did find seemed largely intent on pretending they were chains too.

There was a preponderance of burgers (sometimes posh, sometimes not), steak, chips, and various things covered in melted cheese. Even the several eateries in our hotel were pretty much the same. To the annoyance of my wife, many of such salads as were on offer contained meat, and nothing to suggest one might ask for anything different. We tried what was reputedly the best Italian restaurant in town – which was also noisily trying to pretend it was actually a fast food joint; the food was passable but nothing special, and the service abrupt, though definitely not in the French way…. Much of the menu still came with chips, sad lettuce leaves and slices of under-ripe tomato – and if that was acclaimed at the best….

Compare this to the average French, German or Italian town, where in our experience, one has a fighting chance of finding decent, basic food even at the most average pavement cafe. The produce is fresh, the variety wide and the willingness to accommodate individual needs normally present. I know climate plays a part in this – but it is not as though imported produce is not available. And in any case, the real trick is to use local produce, of which Lincolnshire is hardly short. To be fair, there were a number of decent independent butchers and more selling local produce; it just didn’t seem to be making it into the restaurants.

On the second night, we repaired to Carluccio’s – which while a chain has at least stuck to its founder’s vision, and reliably offers good food in pleasant surroundings; in our opinion it exceeded the previous night’s experience.

Despite the nation’s crowing about its food, I suspect there is now a general decline going on. The ‘casual dining’ chains are losing customers and closing branches. I’m not surprised given the uninspiring offerings they too often have – but I’m not confident they are falling from grace in favour of superior offerings. Unfortunately, even Carluccio’s is suffering – though I was pleased to ascertain that the Lincoln branch will remain. The place needs it.

And just to conclude (partly for the benefits of the Lincolnites who may read this) this piece is not a slur on that city; we very much enjoyed our visit. It is a fine place that warrants attention, even if a little tatty round the edges. It just a happened to function as a semi-random test of the current state of public dining in the U.K. – and it would seem that other than trophy-dining at the upper end of the market, not as much has changed as we seemed to believe.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Travelling in Style?

I named this blog carefully, in the belief that attention to the small things is often what transforms mere existence into Living. It is also a study in how this happens – and rather too often fails to.

I think that the truest reflection of the nature of a place or people is found not in the grand gestures, but in the small, everyday matters that contribute to making life what it is or isn’t. Sheer experience has shown that the approaches to this are not the same everywhere: some cultures appear to attach more importance to both pleasing appearance and high quality than others; one of my perpetual gripes about Britain is that so much here feels temporary and insubstantial, even when it is perhaps not. Maybe we need to pay more attention to the details.

Or rather, it’s not that we can’t do things well – but the average British mindset seems to view everyday life as a fairly rudimentary affair, and any grace as a luxury for which one must pay heavily.

This is a great pity, given the tendency of the British to grumble about everyday life, because I firmly believe that the solution is actually in people’s own hands. Special occasions may be great, but what we do with each and every day has a larger impact on the full experience of life. Hence my valuing of the notion of sprezzatura.

I am going to take several posts to examine some rather esoteric example of how different nations approach everyday matters. This post is one of two about transport design. On the face of it, this may not seem an important matter – but quite apart from the technical complexities of the subject, the way in which nations treat their travel spaces is a small but accessible window on the national psyche (I recall a senior Ford marketer once telling me that in Britain people buy cars on the strength of the exterior, whereas in Germany it is the interior that counts…)

Getting transport design right has the potential to transform a trying necessity into a stylish, enjoyable experience.

Railway carriage design might be expected to be important to the British, given the length of time many of them spend commuting. It is also a challenging design problem, given the many constraints that bear on it – from the inherently awkward, tube-like shape of the vehicles, to the increasingly stringent health and safety requirements, let alone the need to squeeze huge amounts of functional technology into confined spaces while keeping the whole usable by the public. I have travelled thousands of miles around Europe by train, and have experienced many approaches to this conundrum, some much more successful than others from the passenger’s perspective. One cannot but help compare and contrast. A comfortably-executed train journey is one of life’s pleasures, and with the need to get people out of their cars, one might have thought attention to that experience would be high on operator’s agendas. It is – sometimes.

So here is a selection of interiors from around the railways of Europe, with a little cultural commentary…

We’ll start with the home offering. Given the fragmented nature of Britain’s railways, there is no standard design. Companies do their own thing, and it is fair to say that maximising bums-on-seats is their top priority. One can forgive them the inherited problems caused by vehicle dimensions significantly smaller than those on the continent (notably 300-plus mm less width) – but arguably this is all the more reason for creative solutions. In the 1850s, regular-class accommodation was little more than cattle wagons; while standards have obviously risen across the board, the mentality for standard-rate travel in the U.K. is still largely the same…

FGW interior

Exhibit 1 is fairly typical of a British inter-city train today. This is a First Great Western example, and shows what happens when you give a train to what is basically a bus company. The high back seats are a legislative response to rail accidents, while the airline configuration does provide leg room and a little privacy in a high-density interior. But the lighting is stark and far too bright, while the colour scheme is naive and garish – precisely the wrong shades of pink and blue. The overall effect is bleak: I can say from experience that this is not a restful environment in which to spend a couple of hours. In fact, if it were not such a challenging assault on the senses, it would be downright unpleasant.

The same company is taking delivery of a new fleet of government-specified trains, and exhibit 2 shows the latest offering:

gwriep02

I have yet to travel on one of these trains. I find the pared-back, more ‘streamlined’ interior an improvement, though apparently the seats are uncomfortable. Streamlined is a good approach for rail vehicles, given both their inherent shape and the safety considerations involved. But it is still just rather dull, and a real disappointment compared with the sleek enticement to travel that these new flagship trains could have been.

Virgin is also taking delivery of the same fleet. Exhibit 3 shows an original Virgin Pendolino interior, which shows what happens when you give a train to what is basically a cut-price airline. I found to be extremely cramped and claustrophobic, not helped by the sloping walls (needed to keep the vehicle within its dynamic envelope when tilting). I also greatly dislike Virgin’s overly funky, pop-approach to design (and affairs generally – note to marketers, I don’t want to be told I’ve successfully bought a ticket with the word wayhey!!! in huge letters – where’s your dignity, let alone mine?)

virgin pend01

We have more garish primary colours, naff blue lighting in the luggage areas and the generally low-brow feel of a fast-food outlet.

The refurbished fleet on Virgin’s East Coast route fares a little better; this is the company’s second attempt at a train interior; perhaps they are slowly learning. (Exhibit 4):

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…while the same company’s interior (exhibit 5) for the new Inter-City fleet (not yet in service) is at least a little less gloomy than the Great Western offering for the same train – but is still garish in its primary brightness. I suppose this might play well with Virgin’s core youth market – but what about the other segments of the travel market? Still, compare and contrast with exhibit 1…

azuma

One of the chief failings of the private companies that entered the British rail market was that they has little ‘feel’ for rail design issues such as the inherent form of the vehicles, something exacerbated by the ‘need’ for loud branding.

Chiltern is a long-term franchise, and it has been a good innovator over the years. Exhibit 6 shows the interior of one of its latest inter-city offerings. I must admit I am not sure what to make of this, and I have not sampled one in the flesh. Chiltern evolved from an old British Rail sector, and I think the its inherent feel for the design of rail vehicles shows, but while this arguably has atmosphere and ‘presence’, it is also perhaps rather drab, and just too subdued.

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We start to look a little further afield now. Exhibit 7 (below) shows the interior of an Irish inter-city coach from the flagship Dublin-Cork service. The outside ‘face’ of these trains is daringly raked – but as a result, the interiors are all the more of a disappointment: dull, cluttered and visually noisy, with little design credibility at all. Not sure the Irish have really developed much design cred as yet. Straight out of the 1980’s – and they haven’t even got the excuse of a restricted loading gauge.

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Things start to get more interesting when one crosses the Channel. Deutsche Bahn is a highly efficient operator, and as expected its best fleets are high in quality. German design perhaps lacks a little visual flair, but everything feels very solid, with lots of leather, glass and blond wood; there is a hi-tech sleekness to it all. Exhibit 8 shows the interior of an ICE high speed train. I like the imaginative use of glass partitions to keep the interior open and airy, while the snazzy mirror-fronted information display is much less obtrusive than those in British trains. What’s more, the electronic seat reservation system always seems to be working…

db1

…and who can resist this opportunity (Exhibit 9 – which I have taken more than once)? In a move that would give British H&S bods nightmares, it is possible to sit in the driving vehicle, and watch the route ahead unfold at 300kph over the driver’s shoulder. The driver can blank the screen out if (s)he needs, as it is liquid-crystal glass. The seats are even banked for a better view…

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Heading to the rail paradise that is Switzerland, we find low-key restraint. SBB has a very modish image, but its interiors are quite sober. However, the quality is again high – more like the fittings on a luxury car. Exhibit 11 (below) shows the upper deck on an inter-city set; the careful lighting mitigates any feelings of claustrophobia in what is a fairly restricted space.

sbb01

Exhibit 12 shows another glory of Swiss railways – the retention of proper restaurant/bistro cars. This is the design for the latest upper-deck incarnation, and they still have proper table linen, cutlery and china… The monochrome colour scheme is nicely relieved by just the right hit of purple…

sbb02

More of a surprise comes from some of the nations traditionally associated with good design: Italy, Spain and Scandinavia. The Italians have never quite translated their mastery of automotive design to their railways, and the results often look as though they are trying too hard on the outside, and not hard enough on the inside (exhibit 13). Interesting to note that the same capacity preoccupation exists on private trains in Italy as in Britain…

italo2

First class on the FS Frecciarossa is a little more like it (exhibit 14) –

fs freccia

but in fact some of Italy’s slightly older trains actually seem to have more style, here almost a classic mid-century feel… (exhibit 16)

fs old

At least first class on the privately-operated Italo has a little more Italian brio about it (Exhibit 16). I’m not sure that all that shiny caramel leather really works, but I like the sleek partition behind them and the generous sense of space. The same preoccupation with advertising seems to be present…

italo

Spanish railways also major on cool design (Exhibit 17). This is the interior of one of RENFE’s AVE high speed trains. Admittedly this is first class; the leather seats are nicely tailored, and the colours scheme cool – but I wonder how long that pale wood floor will stay looking pristine. All in all, a good offering from a network that has been extremely successful in attracting travellers from their cars in recent years.

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In design terms, Danish trains are very disappointing. I suppose they do reflect the low-key organic Scandinavian approach to design, but despite the abstract end-panel graphics, I would have hoped for something more achingly stylish than this…

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(Exhibit 18)

I am of course saving the best until last. Of all the nations of Europe, when it comes to rail, the French seem to have the best, most innate design sense; from their graphic design to the chic announcement chimes that are almost a national institution, and the contemporary daring of some of their station architecture, they seem to have the right conditions in place to perceive a rail journey as a stylish rather than functional matter. Their train interiors reflect that. This is the nation that put its best fashion designers to work on its train interiors, and the latest offering from Christian Lacroix strikes an excellent balance between the inevitable constraints of a railway coach and doing something chic, different and yet accessible with it. (Exhibit 19). From the asymmetrical seat backs to the integrated reading lights, the funky carpet and the quite daring choice of colours, this is a stylish yet fun environment in which to travel.

sncf lacroix

The following images show a refurbished elderly regional train in France, and the latest experiments for the next generation for inner suburban design. Can you imagine such things happening in Britain?

corail

banlieu

By contrast, Exhibit 22 shows the latest British offering for the forthcoming Crossrail service in London; no contest. (I refuse to call it by the fawningly sentimental name Elizabeth Line). Even the upholstery (which I suppose is meant to be stylish) looks as though it is trying too hard and yet simultaneously fails to make any impact.

eliz line

Exhibit 23: Credit where credit’s due: the interiors for the new generation of Eurostar trains is up there with the best, something close to what this service should have offered from the start. It was always the best offering on British soil – probably because the designs were French. The latest version, of which this is the buffet, is a German designed train, with an Italian interior by Pininfarina. Why aren’t all trains like this?

eurostar01

It is perhaps pushing the point a bit far to claim that national train interiors reflect national temperaments and priorities – but there is nonetheless a wide variety of approach. As I said at the start, the design of things like train is a significant factor in the whole experience of using them, and it is not as though there is no precedent – from Pullmans to Wagons-Lits, style has always been part of rail travel. But in the case of modern British offerings, there is as usual, still too much reverence for traces of ‘heritage’ in the use of bulbous chair shapes, swirly carpets and soft-font signage, while the actual (hidden) agenda is pack ‘em in cheaply in Standard and fleece ‘em for First.

It is a huge disappointment that Great Western Railway (itself a self-conscious resuscitation of a historic brand) has seen no better than to regale its state of the art trains with fake-heritage insignia and a dull, supposedly historic livery. It is a far cry from the strong contemporary image of British Rail in the 1960 and 70s.

There is insufficient clarity and simplicity of line and surface in the interiors of modern British trains, and too little reference to the form that the design needs to follow. This is all the more apparent when one sees some of the crude exterior treatments that have also proliferated, which make no reference to the inherent shape of the train whatsoever. Likewise, the choice of colours is often ill-considered: there is a world of difference between a chic acid green and a dull bottle green, such as GWR have seen fit to throw wholesale over the exterior of their ultra-modern new trains. Graphic art is another field where the French excel, whereas too many British efforts are just dull and clunky.

This is not, however, to say that the continentals always get it right either, as the preceding pictures show.

But there, in one, is the difference in temperament after all – between the sleek chic of the best continental design, and the dull clunky norm in Britain. From the way they dress to the way they furnish their homes, it seems to me that the average Brit has learned little from the supposed design revolution of recent decades. Even IKEA modernism was just another passing fad. So I very much doubt that the average Briton even notices poor design when it comes to public transport, even if they still suffer its ill effects. For all that we bang on about being a world-class nation, when it comes to matters of public utility – not to mention the ‘shop window’ that public transport presents to the visiting world at large – too often we are plain, simple disappointing.

I suspect visual literacy just isn’t in our genes.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Speaking truth to power

I can find little to quibble with in Aeron Davis’ conclusions to his book; part is worth quoting:

We are long due an overhaul of many of our systems and institutions. So many have become something they were never intended to be. Yet leaders and the public continue as if they still operate as they once did. Progressive change in all of them would certainly rein in leaders and re-attach them to publics in various ways.

He singles out:

  • The electoral system which is ‘not one that any emerging democracy would choose now’.
  • The lack of a written constitution with poor checks and balances.
  • The secretive, insular and now market-orientated civil service.
  • The Financial Services sector that extracts far more from the economy than it contributes (and upon which, scarily, we have based our entire economy)
  • The system of corporate governance which is far too orientated towards short-term shareholder returns.
  • The news media which is (even) less independent and more in hoc to those in power and media moguls than it appears.
  • Intermediary professions whose role is too often to reinforce the system – for example accountants advising on tax law and then offering tax avoidance services.
  • The ability of many of these institutions to self-regulate, which is not sufficient to face down vested interests.

Davis avoids the error of demonising those at the top, many of whom, he says are complex, conflicted individuals often operating in a contrary and highly contradictory system.

His conclusions are not exactly new – but this book is the most substantial piece of evidence I have encountered to suggest that they are generally valid, and not just the product of an alternative political agenda. The pity is that he only dedicates four pages of 140 to solutions; that may be significant.

Events in recent times – including the last week – suggest that he is overwhelmingly correct. But what is to be done about a regressive, entrenched establishment that only ever argues for its own self-interest, dressed up as the status quo?

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Reckless opportunists

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It just isn’t done, even today (or perhaps that should be especially today) to criticise your country. Patriotism seems to be on the rise, rather than as one might hope, declining as people achieve wider world-views and realise that there is more to human life that binds than divides, everywhere.

I’ve never had an issue with pride in things that genuinely warrant it – but that is very different from the mindless, drum-banging jingoism that seems to be re-awakening. I am entirely serious about this: I recall one occasion when we took parents to a ‘replica’ Last Night of the Proms at the Albert Hall (sponsored by the Daily Telegraph, which had thoughtfully provided every seat with a branded, plastic Union Jack to wave at the appropriate moment). It was an uncomfortable experience, when that moment arrived, for my wife and me to be the only people in the Hall who felt unable to surge to our feet in what felt like an outpouring of cheap, plastic, branded jingoism – or more likely, a worryingly easily-induced expression of the national herd mentality. In fact, it was almost scary to be the refusenik couple in a crowd of several thousand – but I hope this incident in a small way vindicates the sincerity of my position – my national pride needs to be justifiable.

At present, it feels anything but. Britain is currently rocketing up my list of the world’s nasty countries. With yet another improperly-sanctioned military outing, this time in Syria, the Windrush scandal – not to mention the institutionalised, exceptionalist arrogance which still dominates relations with the rest of Europe (if not the world), it is very easy to come to the conclusion that this is a bellicose, toxic, hawkish nation, for all that it hides it beneath a supposedly-mild manner.

For anyone doubting the wider significance of all this, I suggest a read of Aeron Davis’ new book Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of Establishment. Davis is Professor of Political Communication at Goldsmiths, London. He has had over thirty years’ access to top people in the worlds of finance, business, politics and the media.

The book describes the vacuum behind the power-elites in current British society. The reviews on the rear cover accurately describe his findings as ‘terrifying’. What he describes is the utterly cynical way in which everything from hedge funds to government now function, the purpose of delivering meaningful services and support to wider society long ago having been subordinated to achieving and retaining power for its own sake. Almost as alarming are the changes that have taken place well out of the public eye in recent decades, which completely transformed the way the ‘system’ operates, from a moderately benign if elitist old-boy network, to something altogether more rapacious and vacuously short-termist.

Davis is clearly not without his own political stance, but I think it is visible enough to be allowed for, and I still find his accounts and conclusions deeply concerning. In any case, I am more inclined to trust a senior academic than the spin-doctors at the Mail, Express or Telegraph. Even for those who tend to support the status quo, the book’s strap line ought to be worrying, for he shows how in addition to everything else, the current arrangements risk destroying much of the system that supports it. Personally, I wouldn’t be especially concerned about that – provided it was possible to replace it with something more transparent and less toxic. But, if only for the fact that my patriotism simply takes a different form from normal, I would be extremely concerned that its collapse would drag the rest of us down with it as so nearly already happened in 2008.

The sad thing is, there has never been more coverage of the more benign conditions in other comparable countries. There is really nothing to stop Britain taking on the enlightened views of the Dutch, Swiss, Scandinavians or Canadians. Nothing at all to stop its hawkish drum-banging on the world stage, and to start it on a route of genuine social improvement. Except the self-important, puffed-up national mindset, and the corrupt systems that feed it, and on it.

It is not unpatriotic to face up to one’s country’s shortcomings: in the case of Britain, the worst of all is the delusion that it really is a proper, well-functioning democracy, when what we actually have is something between an oligarchy and an elective dictatorship .

Until this country changes to become a proper liberal, social democracy, with decent standards for all, adequate social and environmental protections, a less punitive attitude towards the majority of its own citizens, a more reasonable relationship with neighbours from whom it might actually learn a lot – and a more forward-looking approach to its problems, I am afraid I will not find much to feel genuinely proud of about Britain, no matter what the group-think might require. And no, appeals to history, even if justified, are not enough.

Strongly recommended reading for anyone wanting to know more about the way power now operates in this country.

 

 

 

Food

Polignano from Puglia

popliango (1)

Chelmsford in Essex is not the most obvious place to have connections with Italy – until, perhaps, one remembers that it was here in 1898 that Guiliemo Marconi set up the world’s first radio factory and in 1910 made the world’s first public broadcast. So the precedent is good.

It is rather more of a mystery why there are Italians in the town today, for despite its recent achievement of city status, this is still – ahem! – a rather optimistic moniker for a place that is hardly Bath or York, let alone London or Los Angeles.

And yet it is using its new-found status to make the best of its fairly modest lot. When I lived there in the early 1990s, the talk was mostly of how soon one would be able to escape the boring, declining dump of a place. But today, it is lively, with a good selection of retail outlets, a busy market and the recent addition of some higher-end stores, anchored by John Lewis, that has been made possible by the easterly exodus from London of a number of financial companies and the high-earners they bring.

While John Lewis is a bonus anywhere, personally I prefer the smaller independent stores which give a place individuality – and it was by pure fluke that last weekend, while waiting for some friends, we chanced upon Polignano, tucked away in a side-street. I have already mentioned Pastaciutta, the market-place Italian kitchen – and now Chelmsford has a very genuine Italian delicatessen/eatery at the other end of its town centre too.

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Polignano seems to be a real labour of love – formed to echo the Pugliese owners’ home life – though how they came to find themselves in Essex is not explained. The place is modest in size, though with a small outdoor terrace and more tables upstairs. It has apparently been there since late 2014, yet I had never noticed. Despite this, it is one of those places that draws the attention from fifty paces – and it did not take long, peering through the windows for us to ascertain that this was no fake. Enthusiastic gestures invited us inside – where the unaffected display of cured meats, home-baked breads, marinaded aubergine slices, out-of –the-ordinary wines and less-known southern specialities on the menu led to a swift change of lunch plans.

Service was leisurely, so it was just as well we were not in a hurry, but the place was well-filled, and the quality of the food, when it appeared fully explained why. Likewise, my glass of Negroamaro was so good that I just had to buy a bottle on the way out. On his equally modest website, Marino Polignano explains that a pallet of specialities is sent fortnightly from his father in Puglia – and it shows. I wonder how many other places in Britain have cactus fruit jam on the menu. Another point of interest is that Polignano is in Italy too, where other members of the family run a restaurant and hotel.

One can only wish such a place great but limited success: it deserves much – but I hope that Marino’s ambitions are modest enough that he will not yield to the temptation to expand, as so many other ventures have over the years at the expense of the character that made them in the first place. In this case, small should definitely remain beautiful.

 

 

Food

Easter Lamb for one

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Cooking larger cuts of meat is not often a viable proposition in a two-person, half-vegetarian household. Even where there are suitable cuts, the need to produce two separate meals can be off-putting when time is short. In the last couple of years, though, I have started marking Easter with the cooking of a lamb shank. I became aware of the possibilities of what was once considered an inferior cut after a glorious meal of Welsh lamb shank braised in red wine at Yr Hen Fecws, a small restaurant-with-rooms in Portmadog, Gwynnedd.

I do like preparing casseroles, and this is very easy: just the usual base of onion, celery and carrot coarsely chopped, leeks if available (which they weren’t here due to a memory slip) and a couple or three crushed cloves of garlic. The meat is browned in oil before being removed while the vegetables are softened. The meat is then replaced, thyme and rosemary added, as is about 1/3 bottle of red wine and a little more than that by volume of meat stock. The pot is left to cook in a low oven (about 150C) for around 2 ½ hours.

Lamb has a lovely flavour, and this cut is just about right for one, served with Jersey Royal potatoes and spring vegetables.