The internet makes things boringly easy



Is the internet taking the charm and adventure out of life?

A big question. But at least consider this scenario: while staying in a village in France, you stumble upon the ruins of a small church, with not an information board to be seen.

Back at your humble accommodation that evening, you dream up an enterprising scheme. You will make it your mission tomorrow to seek out a curate or the most linguistically advanced local in the village tavern to see what they know about the church, when it was built, and so on. It’s about more than the church: your fired-up curiosity will be your excuse to interact with locals who will be won over by your interest and almost unfeasibly happy to help.

Except, of course, you don’t do any of that. Your humble accommodation has an internet connection, so you google the village and find that someone, somewhere has written about the church and its history.

Question solved. But where’s the fun?

In fact, a time will come when wifi wafts across every rural expanse of Europe, and old buildings will have QR codes plastered on them. One swipe with your smartphone, and every detail you could possibly wish to know (unless you’re after postgrad doctorate-level info) will flash up on screen.

You won’t have to go to the trouble of doing any traditional research. Except, research is often fun – the fun being in the chase, rather than what you end up with. It gets you talking to experts, librarians or blokes on barstools.

With the internet, information about every explored spot on earth is there for your perusal. Even if you’ve done real old-fashioned graft to learn about a place, some upstart will hear you mention it, tap on their tablet and summon up facts, figures and what-not, many of which might trump yours.

Suppose that long ago you enjoyed a holiday in one of the planet’s lesser-known crannies, to which you want someday to return, and in the meantime you have a couple of fraying photos to fondly remind you of it? But unless you resist the temptation to look at the internet images of the sights, when you eventually make it back there it’ll almost be too familiar. The internet has stripped away the mystique.


Distillery in Calvados, Normandy

Don’t Kill the FM Radio Star


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Ed Vaizey, our Culture Minister, likes the radio station Classic FM because it’s so ‘accessible and informal’. He never listens to BBC Radio 3, though that hasn’t stopped him offering an opinion on its future, which he suggests should be digital-only.

While Ed’s been listening to Mozart’s greatest hits over breakfast, enlivened with a sprinkling of insurance company adverts, he will not have noticed that Radio 3’s morning show has itself become more accessible in the last few years – some even say too much so. It’s all part and parcel of a modernising spruce-up which took place a couple of years ago and changed the feel of the presentation style (and schedule) of this gem in the public service radio crown, a piece of our cultural heritage which commercial radio can never truly rival.

If he only tries it, Ed will find nothing to scare him on Radio 3 between 6.30am and 9am on a weekday morning. I’ll wager that he’ll enjoy it. Every piece played, which might be a whole small-scale work or a movement taken from a concerto or symphony or chamber sonata, is fairly short. Much of the output will be familiar, and he can even tweet comments to the studio for Petroc Trelawny or whoever is hosting that morning to read out on air.

Of course, Ed can groove to whatever breakfast show he chooses. But I do have this plea to make: don’t maroon Radio 3 in digital land. There have been times when I’ve taken a little FM radio outside to listen to ‘Private Passions’ (a Sunday variant on Desert Island Discs) while painting a shed.

small radio - Magnovox

Strange new world


The internet and strange people…

‘… if the internet era has taught us anything, it’s that a remarkable number of people out there are completely bonkers’ (Michael Deacon, The Sunday Telegraph, 5th October 2014).

As Michael Deacon goes on to point out, before the internet came along the completely bonkers had no outlet. Apart from writing letters to newspaper editors: mad scrawls which staff would wince at and then bin. Maybe that explains the hack’s traditionally cynical view of life.

But if there are so many bonkers people out there, bursting with conspiracy theories and pet hates, maybe they aren’t so bonkers after all. Because being bonkers suggests having views that are far beyond the realms of the ‘sane’ majority. Bonkers mindsets become normal mindsets if enough people have them.

The quickest way to see bonkersness in action is to look down the comments thread of a website discussing any topic one could possibly regard as ‘controversial’. Making highly personal or abusive remarks, ranting off-subject, swearing – these are some of the common ways in which bonkers behaviour manifests itself. ‘Trolling’ is a suitably nasty word for the nastiest form.

As you may have garnered, the way I interpret it, bonkers is bad. Not to be confused with eccentricity, which is quite good so long as it’s unselfconscious.

Call this an odd, even bonkers, idea if you like, but could the internet force us to stop dividing the world up into nation-states and instead recognise just two groups: the rational and the bonkers?

After Scotland’s referendum: the view from here


The Scottish referendum was a curious species of news story, different even to pre-General Election fever. Normally, acres of newspaper coverage means something has happened, and journalists are running around trying to find out just what did happen and to comment on it. But this time, the story was all about what might happen (if the Scots voted ‘Yes’). And in the end, of course, they didn’t vote ‘Yes’. True, the ‘No’ vote will still have its ramifications: but now the story is one of Devo Max and UK constitutional reform. London political journalists, who can be every bit as insular as Scottish Nationalists at times, would not have paid a great deal of attention to the issue of further Scottish devolution if it hadn’t popped up as a sidekick of the bigger Scottish independence question.

With luck, the ‘faultlines’ that commentators say have been opened up by the hard-fought campaigning will be bridged by fair-minded folk from both the Yes and No sides. I want Scotland to do well: I have plenty of Scottish blood in my veins and lived there for two years a decade ago. Remaining part of the UK is, I feel, in everyone’s best interests. I also found the nastiness of some of the nationalists a real turn-off. A chippiness a few Scots carry with them, normally compensated by humour and other celtic qualities, is less pleasant when stoked up into anti-Englishness. The parochial mindset of some sections of the community, ironic considering the contribution made by Scots to the wider planet in the last 250 years, morphs into a wish to see an invisible but still very real barrier replacing the crumbling Hadrian’s Wall.

Meanwhile, nationalism – especially for more recent bandwagon-jumpers – has less to do with affirming Scottish identity via independence than with delivering a left-wing agenda for disgruntled ‘old Labour’ heartlands.

And talking of agendas, especially tactical and cynical ones: letting 16 and 17 year-olds vote at elections as well as a one-off independence referendum? It suits the Scottish National Party, but not those of us who think a little bit of maturity and life experience are necessary when considering the political and social angles of the day.

Hadrian's Wall, England

Hadrian’s Wall (photo: Harry Wood)

Let’s be open with each other


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The trend for open plan life

“And now the News at Ten, with Huw Edwards…” The camera pans across the studio, looking down on ranks of backroom newsgatherers at their office cubicles. We focus on a figure at a very large, empty desk. Huw (for it is he) is sitting in front of an expanse of semi-clear glass. As the bulletin gets underway, behind Huw’s back we notice figures stirring at their desks, walking around, getting up to go home, and even – according to viewers’ complaints last year – playing ‘lightsabres’ with umbrellas.

It’s only when you see footage of old-style newsreading that you realise how much has changed.

Long gone are the days when a chap sat in front of an austerely blank wall embellished only with a photo in the corner to illustrate the news item.

To help me work out what this open plan, reveal-all TV news trend means in broader cultural terms, I’ve looked to the restaurant world for some context.

In most establishments, you only glimpse the steamy kitchens when waiting staff come in and out of the swing doors bearing food. But in recent years it’s been hard to completely miss the trend for a more open kind of set-up. You can look up from your artfully arranged salad to see the chef and his underlings sweating over fiery pans.

The NoMI Kitchen at Park Hyatt in Chicago calls itself ‘A Relaxed Open Kitchen Restaurant’, which suggests that observing the chef in the heat of battle somewhat counter-intuitively makes us feel more chilled. For supporting evidence that the management equates informality with happiness, just look at the website blurb about the ‘comfortable, approachable’ dining room.

It’s a given, of course, that there’s been a shift towards the ‘informal’ in all areas of life, whether it’s work attire (chinos replacing suits) or fine dining (chucking out the starched white tablecloths). So it seems the open plan environment is a means of removing barriers between roles, statuses and job functions, and dissolving some of the mystery that surrounds the end results – the neat pile of spaghetti carbonara, or the polished newscasting.

The NoMI Kitchen also offers ‘interactive culinary workshops’ among its events. The NoMI guys like the idea of forming a deeper connection with customers than is possible by simply plonking food in front of them. Likewise, the BBC News team don’t just want to enter our living rooms via our plasma screens: they also want to invite us into their studio and show us what’s going on, and perhaps to remind us, in case we’re sceptical about licence fee value-for-money, that it takes a lot of people to bring us a news programme.

BBC headquarters

Celebrate diversity on the High Street



While all parts of planet Earth become ever more closely interconnected, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they all become the same.

In 2014, the Indian retail scene still appears exotically old world to someone from the UK. But as a fruit vendor hustles for trade on a typically noisy street, behind him lurks an air-conditioned supermarket, a South Asian adaptation of the kind of place the British go to for the bulk of their grocery needs. What price the street vendor still being able to compete in the India of 2024?

Globalization has an intra-national counterpart. Visit the high street in, say, the Scottish town of Perth, and you might be hard-pressed to espy any regional characteristics distinguishing it from the main shopping areas in Norwich or South London. Specsavers, Phones4U, Boots the Chemist… the usual suspects and ubiquitous shop fronts are here.  

Greggs the baker is an admirable retailer with a good offering, but their presence on the main drag can often be at the expense of an independent bakery. I discovered an exception during my time living in Winchester a decade ago: in an otherwise cloned row of shops was a locally-owned enterprise displaying lardy cakes (a ‘traditional’ product with origins in that part of the country) in its window, a reassuring sight even if you take a dim view of the nutritional benefits of lard-laden sweet treats.

Globalization isn’t a simple matter of big conquering small, or one-size-fits-all, which is why it has been described as a dialectical process: in an attempt to counter the new realities of modernity, a society will actively seek out its origins and form a story or tradition out of them (even if some semi-fabrication is required). In revitalising its culture, a society will reassert itself.

I don’t believe that globalization is, in itself, a bad thing. But surely, in a prosperous country such as the UK, we have the luxury of choosing to stop our market towns becoming so boringly indistinguishable from each other?

a British high street

Happiness, Shopping and Ageing


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If you’ve ever spent a late summer afternoon reflecting on the ebb and flow of the seasons, on the transitory nature of the world, how the sunny uplands of your childhood descended into the frustrations and compromises of adult life, how relatives who seemed eternally vigorous declined and faded away, how your own wrinkles and grey hairs embody valedictory messages from the dying cells beneath your skin – if any of this sounds familiar, you’re also probably sure there’s a poem or two somewhere that sums up your feelings. Well, here’s one:

Time doth flit
Oh shit.

Many poets have written of mortality, of course. Though not as succinctly as Dorothy Parker.

Realising that time is flitting by, we are forced to think about our priorities, or what makes us happy.

Happiness – the possibility of it, if not the actuality – is back in vogue. In this curious stage in human history (in the industrialised regions, at any rate) when happiness seems just out of reach even though most of us have all the worldly goods we need, many would be only too willing to follow Bhutan’s example and use happiness and not economic output (expressed in GDP) as a gauge of success.

Contentment, off which the occasional spark of happiness may fly, is very likely the best we can really aim for as we seek a healthy, lasting, productive mental state.

Contentment, happiness – to achieve it, we still have to put in the effort while we have life in our limbs. A blog posting on Marc and Angel Hack Life describes how hospice residents approaching the end of their lives are all too aware that they have not done all the things they thought they would: “Good health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it. As they say, there are seven days in the week, and ‘someday’ isn’t one of them”.

Shopping on a Sunday, or Someday, or even eight till late, is not enough for some. This week, Morrisons supermarket is extending opening hours at half its stores. You can now pick up your basket at 6am, or carry your bulging bags out at 11pm. Is this time well spent, better than whatever you used to do late at night? To dredge up an old cliché, will your deathbed lament be that you wished you spent more time at Morrisons?

Some will argue that longer shopping hours are all about flexibility, and that being able to shop when you like frees up time which you can then devote to activities you care about. But I wonder. Pushing your trolley down the aisles ultra-early or ultra-late is a sign that you’re having to frame your life around work and similar demands rather than your personal needs and goals.

In fact, the ability to do anything at any hour – such as buy things on Amazon – has a much-acknowledged flipside: the same technology allows bosses to send employees work-related emails with scant regard for weekends, holidays, downtime and me-time.

track stretching into distance

Do railways speed economic growth?



The unintended consequences of improving transport connections…

On paper at any rate, jolting a moribund, post-recession economy into motion is quite simple: invest in railways, roads, airports and other transport projects, expensive though they be in the short-term.

But do the outcomes always meet the grand expectations? A piece in The Economist* last month had some thought-provoking points to make about the local economic benefits, or otherwise, of state investment in infrastructure.

In particular, if a new road or railway seems to boost productivity in a given region, is it really thanks to the infrastructure? Or was the infrastructure a result of demand generated by economic growth that was already taking place?

A new railway linking one of China’s poorest provinces to Tibet would suggest that the answer to the first question is ‘Yes’. There was no hint of any prior growth to prompt the investment, yet GDP per person in the areas affected by the railway shot up much higher than GDP in other areas.

But the figures relating to the same vast nation’s investment in its trunk roads over the last two decades takes our enquiry down a rather different, twistier route. The small regions that found themselves connected to the highway system experienced less GDP growth than unconnected places. It appears that goods piled in from more prosperous areas and pushed out local products.

Before reading any further, I wanted to stop the anonymous author in their tracks and explain that I have a question to which they could usefully apply their expertise in a future edition: could the same happen here in the UK when HS2, the high speed railway, is built?

Adding to London’s bulging coffers at the expense of the economic wellbeing of cities in the Midlands and North would be the very opposite of the Government’s stated intentions, assuming Ministers do indeed want to spread prosperity more evenly around the nation.

*The Economist, 19th July 2014 – ‘Bridges to somewhere’

high speed train

TGV train, France



Butcher’s shop that’s a cut above the rest



Pop-up shops have been popping up all over the media. If not the saviour of the high street, they are at any rate the toast of many who hanker after new retail experiences.

But good retail innovation can flourish even within a more traditional and confining set-up.  I was reminded of this recently when, cycling in Suffolk and in need of a mid-morning sugar fix, I pedalled into a village, looked in vain for a convenience store, and stuck my head into a butcher’s shop.

If you think a butcher’s is all about meat, and maybe a few eggs – basically, products for cooking and eating at home – then this shop would have given you a glimpse into a future in which adaptability revitalises village retailing.

Amidst a line-up of goodies that would not disgrace a specialist deli were fresh vegetables, English cheeses and Mediterranean things in jars. Most pertinent to my needs at that moment were the take-away coffee and packets of biscuits.

You can do without a Spar, Londis or bland, pint-sized Tesco when you have an enterprising butcher in your area. And his independence usually ensures an eye-pleasing shop front.

butcher's shop

(© Copyright Fly) – a more typical butcher’s shop

A Spanish affair



I’ve just started teaching myself Spanish. Not with any real aim in mind: maybe an expedition to Bolivia, if I have the time, or a city break in Bilbao if I haven’t. But as small talk phrases like ¿cómo se llama? colonise my brain I worry that they are pushing out the French vocabulary I’ve been steadily collecting over the years.

Some time ago I singled out France as my casual research subject (and destination for wine-quaffing summer holidays). Maintaining a modest French language level, enough to look over Le Figaro stories, is my way of seeing the world through non-British lenses.

By turning my attentions to Spanish, I have a nagging sense that I’m betraying my imaginary French friends. When I saw coverage of the Tour de France this month, the scenery of La France profonde seemed to reach out of the TV and embrace me. What am I doing, I thought, turning my back on all this for the sake of asking someone for directions to the station during some one-off trip to Madrid?

The obvious compromise would be to keep up both languages. But I have to admit my French has gone about as far as I can take it without actually decamping to France full-time and immersing myself in the language; meanwhile, Spanish feels as fresh as a newly-pressed extra virgin olive oil and, being a novice, my scope for improvement is boundless.

I don’t think I could be one of those people who can converse in several languages. If I cannot have both Spanish and French, then I will regard the former as my mistress, accompanying me as I travel in the Spanish-speaking world, and the latter as my marital home.

After all, if my observations these past years have taught me anything, it’s that in France a little liaison on the side is quite acceptable and won’t end a longstanding relationship.

spanish course pack


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