Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Does it do what it says on the tin?

Dear readers,

As the title of this enterprise suggests, I like nice things. While financial necessity sometimes (often!) intervenes, I appreciate luxury, from scent to food to drink to clothes and shoes. However, a conversation with my stepfather recentlt raised an interesting philosophical question: can the power of a brand overcome the shortcomings of a product itself? The subject which sparked this off was the automotive industry. Can a good product by an everyday manufacturer (in this case the Ford Mondeo Vignale) beat a so-so product by a prestige manufacturer (the now-late Jaguar X Type was the example we chose)?

It is a question which is relevant in these times when the middle classes laud bargain outlets like Aldi and Lidl, even for luxury items such as champagne and smoked salmon. Are consumers willing to pay a premium for the brand, or is the canny shopper to be found in these cut-price retailers?

To some extent, the latter must surely be the case. Last year, The Daily Telegraph reported that a Which? blind tasting had rated Aldi’s champagne (a tenner a bottle) more highly than Laurent-Perrier and Moët & Chandon. You would be a fool, a snob, or a very expert connoisseur to choose the big names and their attendant big prices. I will leave the reader to decide into which category he or she falls.

A word at this point on champagne. I am as much of a fan of a good dollop of fizz as the next man, but it can be hideously overpriced. Cava and, more recently, prosecco have, of course, made real inroads into champagne sales, and the market for English sparkling wine, such as the excellent Nyetimber, is booming. However, sometimes only the genuine article will do. Forget Moët & Chandon: it is overpriced and unremarkable. If you do drink it, please at least remember that the ‘t’ in Moët is hard and should be voiced. I’m not a huge fan of Bollinger, either, despite its legendary status (thanks in no small part to the appalling Absolutely Fabulous). Taittinger I do like, but it’s more than £30 for even the standard non-vintage, which is a lot to pay for a famous name. If you are willing to make the financial outlay, Billecart-Salmon is excellent, and the rosé is particularly good (a friend of mine bought a bottle on the day I had my viva, and it was a lovely treat: of course, the PhD remains unfinished… but this is The Year).

Champagne is probably the most obvious product for which people are still willing to pay for the brand name. Yet there are areas in which there exists no discount option for even the savviest bargain-hunter. A good example is aftershave (and, I daresay, perfume too). I favour Acqua di Parma, though I also occasionally wear Creed’s Green Irish Tweed, which was used by Cary Grant, apparently. But they’re expensive. A good deal can be had when travelling by buying at duty-free, but there is no Aldi equivalent for scent. If you want a particular product, you have to pay.

Falling somewhere between the two, for me, are watches. Clearly, one can have a timepiece for very little money, one which will accurately and reliably tell you the time without offending aesthetic sensibilities. So the bargain marklet exists. But I am, I suppose, a bit snobbish about watches. I’m sure there are many people for whom they are purely functional items, to allow them to track the passage of the sun across the sky, but for me they are about display too. Therefore brands matter. When that EuroMillions win comes, for surely it will, I will be off to my local horological dealer to buy a collection: a Cartier Tank, for sure, and a Dunhill facet; probably a TAG Heuer Monaco, and maybe a Rolex Oyster Perpetual. For the moment, until Croesus-like wealth falls into my lap, I have an Omega Seamaster which was bought for me many years ago, when Pierce Brosnan was re-popularising the brand in his Bondian pomp, and a relatively modest Rotary, which is smart and unfussy.

Back to cars (a field on which I can hold forth at enormous length). There is little doubt that the Vignale range of Fords is very good. Personally, I think Ford are going great guns at the moment, and have a well-designed set of models, from the Fiesta to the Edge. The Focus RS is a ridiculously fast car and really recalls the hot hatches of the late 1980s. However, there will always be people who will not be comfortable saying they drive a Ford, and will pay more money for a perhaps-less-capable Mercedes or Audi. It is a strange marker of accomplishment, the brand of car you drive (if any), and I think it is probably a male trait. It always makes me think of Seventies swingers throwing their car keys into a bowl. I’m not immune to the arms race myself; I would very much like a Maserati Quattroporte, partly because it’s a lovely car, but partly so I could say to people, “I’m sorry I’m late, I was just parking THE MASERATI”. (Not an excuse to use at the synagogue on a Saturday, by the way. Awkward.)

So what is the conclusion? I suppose it depends on what sort of person you are, and what you’re buying. Quality can be had at comparatively modest prices in some markets. Whether it’s Aldi champagne or a Ford Mondeo, you don’t need to pay top dollar. But sometimes the brand is the point. You do sometimes get what you pay for.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Sorry is an easy word

Dear readers,

I want to be serious for a minute. Well, a bit longer than a minute. It depends how quickly you read. Fear not, I’m sure the mood will pass. But anyway. The two primates of the Church of England, Archbishop Welby of Canterbury and Archbishop Sentamu of York, have issued a statement urging Anglicans (and, who knows, perhaps others) to repent for the divisions and the violence of the Reformation. It is, of course, 500 years this October since Martin Luther published his famous 95 theses which would be the catalyst for a reform movement that split the Catholic Church apart. Here is not the place to discuss the fact that there had been reform movements before, from the Cathars to the Lollards to the Hussites, and that Luther was building on their work as much as he was innovating. In any event, it is a year of considerable commemoration, and as good an anniversary as any.

(In parentheses: I find something rather admirable about the Archbishop of York, if only because he has removed his dog collar and refused to put it back on until Robert Mugabe no longer holds Zimbabwe in his thrall. As an action of protest, it’s not exactly Jan Palach, I admit, but he’s stuck to it, and it hopefully does some tiny good in reassuring the people of Zimbabwe that they are not totally forgotten as they endure the devil Mugabe’s vile dictatorship.)

I should say here and now that in general I don’t like apologies for historical events. I think they are gesture politics and virtue-signalling at their worst, and they are un-historical too, because they imply, or perhaps I infer, that we should judge the past by the standards of the present, which is an abnegation of the empathy that any decent historian must have. There are exceptions: when David Cameron apologized for the events of Bloody Sunday in 2010, in the wake of the publication of the Saville Report, it made a real difference to peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, and, of course, it was within living memory. On the other hand, I think apologising for the Potato Famine, say, or the Zulu Wars (and I’ve heard calls for both) would be worthless and stupid. The past, as LP Hartley said, is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. And that, really, is the point I want to make.

What I find so stupid and wrong-headed, as well as historically illiterate, is the ecumenicalism which has driven the Archbishops’ statement: “Such repentance needs to be linked to action aimed at reaching out to other churches and strengthening relationships with them.” Their message is that we should all just get along and realise that, in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, all religions are really just different roads converging on the same point. Well, that may be the mood of the early 21st century, and perhaps it is an enlightened and liberal view to take as we contemplate the divine. I am not religious, so I don’t have a dog in that particular fight. It would, however, be utter anathema (if I can use that word) to the 16th century mind.

Back in the day, when I was trying to teach Tudor history to young moppets, one of the great barriers I had to help them overcome, before they could really reach any understanding of the period beyond knowing dates and names, was grasping that men and women of the 16th century were simultaneously people just like you and me, and also utterly different. What Luther was proposing in his Wittenberg outburst was not a matter of abstruse academic and theological debate. It struck at the heart of how the world worked. As someone said of football, it wasn’t life and death, it was much more important than that. When Protestants came to say that man was granted salvation solely through faith rather than, as the Catholic Church maintained, good works, this was a chasm between them, and it mattered. If you were religiously confused in the 16th century (and I suspect many, if not most, people were), you had choices to make. Pick the wrong side, and, for as far as you knew, you were going to Hell. And for them, Hell was real. This was eternal damnation, fires and torments for the rest of all time. This wasn’t a matter of which football shirt you wear or what kind of hat your priest has. The stakes literally could have not been higher. Salvation versus damnation. Not a choice you wanted to get wrong.

Stakes, punningly, bring me to the inevitable subject of religious violence. The Pope has said of the Reformation that the division between Catholic and Protestant “has been an immense source of suffering”, and he is, of course, in a mechanistic way, right. Each side killed the other in horrifying numbers and in horrifying ways for most of the 16th century before the bloodbath culminated in the dreadful violence of the Thirty Years War. It was not an edifying time for religion: I think particularly of the scene in Cambridge in 1557 when the bones of Martin Bucer and Paul Fagius, two eminent Protestant theologians, were disinterred and publicly burned while the Bishop of Lincoln preached a two-hour sermon on the dead men’s errors. But I could equally think of Prior John Houghton, of the London Charterhouse, who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1535 and who, according to tradition, prayed to God as the executioner cut his chest open to pull out his heart.

The idea of killing in the name of religion is very topical as Syria burns and European cities wait anxiously for the next attack by Islamic extremists. The important thing to understand about the atrocities of the 16th century is that, however abhorrent they seem to us, however alien, however gruesome (remember that public executions drew large crowds of spectators until the 19th century), they were not, in the main, done out of spite, but out of religious conviction and even, in a way which seems perverted to the modern mind, out of charity: charity in its proper sense of caritas, that is, love.

I return, as I often do, to my beloved Queen, Mary Tudor, forever labeled by history as “Bloody Mary” (or more wittily by Sellars and Yeatman as “Broody Mary”; for me, the best line in 1066 And All That is that “Broody Mary's reign was, however, a Bad Thing, since England is bound to be C. of E., so all the executions were wasted”). It is undeniable that the persecution of Protestants under Mary was harsh and, with 280 men and women burned at the stake in under four years, it was the most intense campaign of its kind in 16th century Europe. To modern eyes, it is unimaginable to put so many people to death, and in public too, simply for their theological leanings. But we cannot judge the past by our own standards, or, at least, if we do, we miss the point. The martyrs who would go on to be immortalised by John Foxe in his Actes and Monuments were not killed out of spite, or from a psychopathic bloodlust. They were killed because they were, so far as the Church was concerned, wrong, and destined for Hell unless something was done about their doctrinal errors. Many repented, no doubt some from fear of punishment as well as from religious revelation, including, famously, Thomas Cranmer, who recanted six times before deciding to go to his death after all. For those who would not, however, the only path to salvation was through the fires of the stake. In the eyes of the Marian Church, it was a matter of being cruel to be kind. Earthly torture was bad, but eternal torture was worse.

Now, before any of you stage an intervention and worry that I’m filling out my application form for the Spanish Inquisition, I am not endorsing the burnings of Mary’s reign. (I would quite like a cardinal’s outfit, though. That’s for another day.) I am not saying they are right. But historians have to understand the why as well as the what, otherwise the whole discipline is pointless. Those who ordered and carried the executions were not blood-soaked monsters. They were, in their own way, doing what they thought was not only right but necessary.

How does this take us back to Justin Welby, one of the greatest milquetoasts in a Church which is not short of the bland and platitudinous? It is his desire to impose the modern Church on the Church of the past. It is to say that the differences over which people argued, fought, and ultimately killed each other did not matter. But they did to them. Fail to grasp that, or try to sweep it under the carpet, and you may as well abolish every history department in every university.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The groves of academe

Dear readers,

Like many of my former colleagues in the corridors of power, I am the author of an as-yet-unfinished PhD thesis. Indeed, Westminster is awash with possessors of arcane knowledge; my first boss had written a doctorate on the mediaeval bridges of England, while another colleague was an expert on early modern French erotica. I had my viva a month before I started work, and was passed subject to corrections. Fine, I thought, I’ll easily tend to those minor amendments in the evenings and at weekends. Eleven years later, here we are…

I have written of the pitfalls of New Year resolutions, but, flouting the spirit of “Physician, heal thyself”, I have resolved to finish the corrections and resubmit the thesis this year. In the dying days of December, I dared to open the files on my laptop for the first time in years, and was pleasantly surprised (more relieved than anything else, actually) to find that it was readable and didn’t make me squirm with embarrassment. It also contained chunks of knowledge I had completely forgotten having. A good friend of mine has a similarly unfinished magnum opus, and I have suggested a pact that we conclude 2017 with an expensive bottle of whisky, having finished our respective doctorates.

There are several motivations behind my perhaps-rash resolution. In a mechanistic and utilitarian sense, in the interim period until I win the EuroMillions, it would be beneficial from a career standpoint to have the magical title of Doctor (and you can bet it’s going on credit cards, driving licence, passport, anywhere). In a psychological sense, it would be satisfying to tie up a loose end and finish a long-dormant project, perhaps proving something to my supervisor who must have torn his hair out. Importantly, though, it would also entitle me to sport a gown of a shade formally, I believe, described as spectrum blue (and there won’t be any of this graduating in absentia shit for me, you can rest assured). I am very fond of my master’s gown, though I hardly get to wear it these days – there was a time when it got an outing at least once a week – and the hue of the lining of my senior hood is a pleasing saffron yellow colour, but the electric blue number is a definite step up. (The real prize, though very rarely awarded, is the DLitt: a gown of saffron yellow lined with ivory silk, with a hood to match. I have once seen one of these worn and it was swoontastic.)

Being a PhD student is a strange business (though is a grain of truth, if I may adapt the old aphorism, to the notion that if you can remember my postgraduacy then you weren’t really there). Oddly enough, because the opposite is much more often true, I was a much more social creature as a postgraduate than I had been as an undergraduate. It took me a long time to find my feet properly at university and I was already a Master when I really began to flourish. I think my supervisor, and very probably most of my fellow researchers, regarded my extra-curricular activities as deeply infra dig, and, given that most of them are now fully-fledged academics and I am not, who is to say they were wrong? All I can say is, I had a whale of a time.

It is, however, as I say, a rum do. Doctoral students can be very solitary souls, as they “deep dive” into a subject that even their supervisors may only be glancingly familiar with, and it is easy to exist in one’s own hermetically sealed silo. My faculty tried to overcome this by having fortnightly seminars, strictly on a three-line whip, at which students would present papers on some aspect of their research and, essentially, explain it to their fellows. As well as bringing hermit crabs out of their shells, this was good experience for aspiring lecturers (as postgraduates we were allowed, encouraged and sometimes required to supervise seminars but were not generally let loose on lecture halls). Even with this discipline, I was left somewhat out on a limb, as an historian of Catholic England studying at an institute famous for its Protestant historiography.

Some of my colleagues – and I know it’s a cliché but it happens to be true, the Germans were particularly prominent in this regard – were sufficiently organized and disciplined to treat their studies almost as an office job. They would turn up at the institute at 9.00 am, work till 5.00 pm or 6.00 pm, then go home. I am sure this was, for them, enormously productive; if you think of the man hours (person hours!) you put in like that over three or four years, they really add up, and suddenly researching and writing 100,000 words doesn’t seem like such a Herculean effort. I wasn’t like that. Partly, I am very much an owl rather than a lark, so early mornings, except when I was teaching, were Not My Thing, especially if the night before had been a heavy one (and there were many of those). I would protest, though, I hope not too much, that it was not merely a matter of fecklessness and libertinism. I did for a while have an office (a shared room, I hasten to add) next to my supervisor’s, but I found it an unconducive place to work. My room-mates, while perfectly pleasant, liked the radio on, and I didn’t like the presence of other people. I found them distracting and I felt self-conscious. (Ironic, this, as I now write best in pubs, albeit quiet ones.) I also bridled at the lurking presence of my supervisor next door. It was like having an invigilator stand right behind you all the way through an exam.

Eventually, we reached a compromise. I vacated the much sought-after desk in the department and would work in the library or at home (I had a succession of very comfortable flats, for rents which nowadays seem absurdly cheap), and would call in at regular intervals to update my supervisor on my progress or submit chunks of written work. In fact, though, the bulk of the writing was done after I had moved south of the Forth to Edinburgh, at our large kitchen table which I could cover with paper and where I could have a couple of glasses of wine to aid the creative process. (If I have any advice to give to aspiring researchers, it is that Riesling is a very good drafting wine. Don’t ask me why, it just is.)

Along with my studies, I pursued a more active social life than a lot of my fellow postgraduates, and was described in the student newspaper as “an old-fashioned hack”. My level of electoral success in student politics can be judged by the fact that I was elected unopposed as postgraduate representative on the University Senate by 52 votes; 26 people voted to re-open nominations. Still, a win is a win, and it was my only campus-wide victory. Three times I was thwarted in my ambition to become President of the Debating Society, and yes, if you want to know, I’m still bitter. (The first two were fair defeats; the third was a stab in the back, by a German who had obviously learned the meaning of Dolchstoßlegende.)

Should I have been a more sober and sensible individual? Perhaps. Had I done so I might now be a PhD of some standing and reputation, instead of somebody creeping back to the fringes of academe in early middle age. But I enjoyed it. Goodness me, I enjoyed it. In my postgraduate years I made some lifelong friends, the sort of friends you don’t always see very often but with whom you can pick up the thread of companionship within seconds of meeting again. I learned something about teaching, too. My greatest lesson was that you can cope with any number of indifferent students who are just there to tick off the module credits, and even the odd complete duffer, if there are one or two students who are visibly engaged and enthused in the subject. They make all the difference. It was particularly true of the period I was teaching; not all of the students had studied any early modern history – what do you mean, there aren’t any Nazis? – and so bringing them to some understanding of and empathy with the subject was enormously satisfying.

I do think that postgraduate students can miss out of the more social aspects of university life. It’s particularly true if, unlike me, you move universities to study for your PhD. There is an efficiency in treating it like a job, but it’s a cold and rather bland efficiency, at least to my mind. Moreover, postgraduates, being that little bit older and, it is to be hoped, worldly-wise, have a lot to offer the student community. I was a loyal and active member of my university’s debating society, and on the rare occasions that postgraduates could be induced to attend and participate, they usually had interesting things to say. This was doubly true of those who had been out in what I gather is called the real world and had come back to university life later in life.

Of course, it’s all about striking a balance, and I’m sure I didn’t always get it right (see above). It must also depend on what sort of university you attend. For me, the university dominated the town and everybody lived on top of each other. Had I been in London or another big city, my experience might have been very different. It would have been different again had I been at a more modern campus university.

All of which brings me back to my resolution. 2017 will be The Year of the PhD. I have already spread my Twitter tentacles out to begin to re-engage with the academic world, and have put out a few pitches to history conferences. We shall see what becomes of them. But remember: Riesling.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

January: A survivor's guide

It is a fallacy, put about by TS Eliot, that April is the cruellest month. He thought it mixed memory and desire, and stirred dull roots with spring rain. Well, I’m no gardener (I managed to keep a small hydrangea alive for a while as a child but have never pursued the horticultural arts since then), but I have to take issue with old Thomas Stearns. I have no brief against April, but surely, surely, the cruellest, bleakest, most unforgiving month is January.

It starts badly. 1 January is a hellish day. People are either hungover from the night before, or else unbearably smug that they had an early night and are of a revolting sunny disposish, as Bertie Wooster would have described it. Shops and watering holes are often closed, or open for limited periods, and there is no news to speak of (the honours list is published the day before, as are the documents released under the 30-year rule). I remember wandering the streets of Edinburgh one 1 January many years ago, after a very convivial New Year’s Eve, my companion in arms and I desperately searching for somewhere to perch with a beer or two, and perhaps take on some solids to soak up the previous night’s intake. The only place we could find was a TGI Friday, not normally my venue of choice (apart from that one time in Stockholm, but that’s another story), but we seized upon it like drowning men on a life raft, despite being served by a fat and unprepossessing German called Rolf who had a plethora of lapel badges pinned to his braces and squatted on his not-inconsiderable haunches to take our order.

For those of a religious bent, the beginning of January does at least hold some spiritual comfort. We sing about the Twelve Days of Christmas, but our secular society often has the tree down by 27 December and the baubles and tinsel packed away for another year, forgetting that said Twelve Days don’t conclude until 5 or 6 January (depending on your confessional identity). The Feast of the Epiphany is A Big Deal for those who do, so you have something to look forward to.

Slender comfort for unbelievers. January has little else to recommend it. In the Northern Hemisphere, it is, on average, the coldest month of the year, with none of December’s twinkly (OK, slightly kitsch) appeal of frosty mornings, fogs of breath, holly bushes and nativity scenes. For Americans, it is California Dried Plum Digestive Health Month (seriously). And National Soup Month. Not much there to gladden the heart and see you through the grimmest, darkest time of the year. So, like any difficult venture, getting through January requires a strategy. Have a plan. And watch out for potential pitfalls.

The first and most obvious one is Dry January. There are those who will always expound the virtues of abstinence, and I’m sure in some limitative way they are right to do so. Non-drinkers, or, as the scientific evidence seems to be showing increasingly, moderate drinkers, live longer. Well, it feels that way to them, anyway. (My own views on clean living are largely summed up by the incomparable Bill Hicks’s skit about Yul Brynner and Jim Fixx:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8a3W_LbKc4. Remember that Jim Fixx, who “invented” jogging, died at 52 of a massive heart attack. So, you know. YOLO.) No doubt there is a place for moderation, and I know several friends, a lot of them Olympian topers when the mood is right, who do from time to time give up the booze for long periods. But January? That is surely the worst time. I’m not advocating that you spend the 31 days off your gourd on the cheapest spirits available to man, though if that is your inclination, then I’m not the person to stand in your way. If you enjoy a drink, however – and you wouldn’t be giving up if you didn’t – then a few warming and tasty glasses from time to time are surely an essential way of ploughing through those grim weeks. Take June off instead, or October (unless you’re coming to my birthday party), or May.

Diets are similarly to be avoided. Most of us, if the statistics the Government keeps hurling at us are to be believed, could stand to shed a few pounds. This may well be double (or triply, or…) true after Christmas, which increasingly seems to have become a competitive eating event. Well done you! You’ve eaten Stevie Wonder’s weight in leftover turkey! Have a medal. No, it’s not a chocolate one. Sucks to be you. Again, I profess a degree of Devil-may-care disdain for a healthy lifestyle, but it might not hurt to pass up that third sausage or extra naan bread from time to time. To make December and January into a binge-and-purge cycle, though, will simply make you miserable. And it may not work. How many people tell themselves that they have forsworn a glass of wine so that white chocolate Magnum in the freezer is basically OK? Result – hello, 31 January. I have lost two pounds and I hate my life.

Another thing to avoid is the knotty matter of New Year’s Resolutions. No good will come of these. You can spend as much money as you want on a fancy cross-trainer which monitors your heart rate, tells you how many calories you have burned and gently mops your brow with a damp chamois. Deciding to buy one while half-cut over Christmas will not make you any more likely to use it in the following year than you were before. Here I plead slightly guilty: I once owned such a device (minus chamois), used it once and then for years afterwards employed it as an elaborate and expensive place to drape drying clothes. Eventually I gave it away to my brother-in-law, and I felt much the better for it.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Not only are you no more likely to write that novel you’ve been thinking about in 2017 than you were in 2016, you will feel all the worse for it, because you have Made A Resolution, and, if you are particularly foolish, told people about it. New Year’s Resolutions exist to make you feel bad. If you want to get fit, get fit. If you want to learn conversational Swahili, it is not beyond the wit of man. Don’t be a slave to the calendar and to people’s expectations. JFDI, as the acronym has it.

My final piece of advice is, in a sense, a distillation of all that has gone before. You are in control of your own life but you must remind yourself of that. Scito te ipsum, as poor old Peter Abelard says. You don’t become a different person at 12.01 am on 1 January (unless you’ve been drinking tequila, in which case that can happen). You are no better nor worse than you were before, no more disciplined or motivated, no less debauched or sozzled. You can change yourself – everyone can – but there is no magic formula. Learn to accept yourself, good and bad, and think about changes you might want to make, but do so at your own pace. Do this, and maybe, just maybe, you will survive January. Me? I’m going to write a novel. Obviously.