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

Not every man is that kind of man


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Allegations, arrests and court cases concerning ‘historic’ child sex abuse have continued to make unpleasant news headlines.  

As far as I can tell, the perpetrators are always men. Women are, occasionally, the instigators of horrible acts, from Myra Hindley to sly poisoners to wealthy hirers of hitmen for husband-elimination: but sex abuse, at least where it involves high-profile figures, appears to be a man thing.

Do most men harbour perverted urges, albeit small and suppressed, within ordinary exteriors? I don’t think so at all (I speak as a man), but as the crimes stack up I wouldn’t blame any woman who answered ‘yes’.

And then I read a Spectator piece by Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK, which left me feeling yet more deflated.

Noting that very many of the MPs who protested against HS2 were female, he adds that most men are ‘a teeny bit Aspergic’:

‘An assemblage of highly male brains may be great if you want to design a new jet engine, but elsewhere – finance, economics, politics, trains – it can lead to the wasteful and overzealous pursuit of goals which are more or less irrelevant to human happiness’.

I’m not trying to bracket HS2 fetishes with child exploitation or groping young women. But I do feel like standing up and making two points clear to the world. First, there’s no latent Rolf Harris in me. Second, many men think that throwing money at a shiny new high-speed railway project, despoiling Chilterns landscapes while doing little for the regions but instead making England even more London-centric, is definitely not the best course of action.

a tie;

Meditation for Managers



view of mountains

View from monastery at Rumtek, Sikkim, North India

Companies up and down the UK have discovered Buddhism. Well, an aspect of Buddhist practice anyway. It seems businesses are almost as likely to send employees on ‘mindfulness’ courses as they are to stump up for vocational training or Health & Safety Days.

Some of the non-corporate, more traditional exponents of Eastern meditative practices, those who are more at home with love, peace and long-flowing robes than takeovers, spreadsheets and jacket-and-ties, dislike the use of mindfulness for selfish, or at least self-centred, purposes. In their eyes managers are solely concerned with improving their own wellbeing and increasing their employees’ productivity (in other words, the bottom line), in effect grabbing what they need from mindfulness and leaving behind the ethical values that mindfulness is all about.

If the whole mindfulness thing has passed you by – though it can only have done so if you’ve spent the last few years meditating on a mountain – it is, in a nutshell, about anchoring yourself to the present, being more aware of the world around you. As such, it can relieve stress and lift depression.

We spend too much of our time dwelling on the past – often with a hefty dose of regret. And when we ponder the future, it’s with trepidation. Even while enjoying our favourite leisure activity we allow disquieting thoughts to enter our minds.

With roots in the contemplative traditions of all the main religions, but Buddhism in particular, a course in mindfulness is a palliative for the frazzled mind in an ever-busier world.

Harassed government ministers and other Westminster politicians are looking to mindfulness – for the relief it can provide them, weighed down by the cares of office, but also because of the potential it offers the National Health Service to reduce the dependency on medication of depression sufferers, or to treat drug addiction.

Again, our more spiritually-inclined practitioners may applaud the attention it’s receiving from health policymakers, while being less keen on its use as a career development tool (for MPs or whoever) or its status as the latest corporate fad. Business leaders can do all the meditation-based training they want to, but if ethics are merely implicit rather than explicit then it ain’t mindfulness. Mindfulness can only be understood with reference to other people, and to compassionate behaviour. And it won’t solve the big problems our politicians and corporate highflyers are in a position to tackle – such as the marginalisation of the poor, or environmental degradation – without a deeper engagement, focused on outcomes, with the very issues themselves.

I haven’t tried mindfulness, as it happens, but I’m well disposed towards it. It’s not going to change Gordon Gecko into Gandhi: but by becoming hyper-aware, the mindfulness student is almost bound to become more empathetic, with the result that he is more likely to respect others and rein in the worst of his greedy grasping tendencies.

Do holidays expand horizons?



A summer holiday is potentially much more than an idle luxury: going abroad or to a distant part of your own country is a chance to detach yourself from routine life and concerns, all the better to consider them afresh. And holiday sights, sounds and encounters inspire thoughts of other possibilities, other ways of living.

The writer Amit Chaudhuri, brought up in Bombay, spent childhood holidays in the city that gave its name to his 2011 memoir-cum-cultural history, Calcutta. In it, he suggests that part of any holiday’s enchantment lies in the non-engagement with ordinary life’s ‘rules of narrative’:

“It’s a period of time that’s static, unmoving, without the on-and-on progression that our lives generally have – but a period, nevertheless, in which a transformation occurs.”

I find that ‘non-engagement’ can happen when I’m doing the simplest thing, like eating breakfast in a café in France. The familiar – eating breakfast – becomes foreign because we’re in a foreign place.

This idea of the transformational holiday got me thinking about what we actually do en vacances, and how it can affect changes in our minds deeper and more lasting than any sun tan.

It seems fairly clear to me that when we do varied, even active things, it’s not with any sense of growth or progression. We relax on sun loungers, we stimulate our minds in art galleries, we pull on trainers or walking boots to play tennis or hike; we get our adrenalin rushes by whitewater rafting, we speak to locals in an unaccustomed tongue, and try new foods. By the end, it’s been a hotch-potch of experiences, with no unifying purpose, yet we come back home convinced (and perhaps we’re right) that our lives will from thenceforth be different. We’ve had a Pauline conversion on our way to Baggage Reclaim at Gatwick: we’ve seen another way of living, and things will never be the same again – for a while, at least.

But then, obedient to the demands of the workplace, we become caught up in progress of a more conventional, urgent and unthinking kind: sustaining the momentum of life, earning money, and acquiring professional skills, knowledge and contacts.

croissant and coffee


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