Wednesday 21 March 2007

In Praise of Customer Unfriendliness

When my School of Everything co-conspirator Paul bemoans the scarcity of free wifi in central London, I tend to feel a little smug. In Sheffield, there's a decent scattering of hotspots in independent cafes or pubs. On the other hand, when all that matters is getting something written, I prefer to escape the tentacles of the internet and hole up in more low-tech surroundings.

That's how I found the old cafe a couple of streets away from where I'm living. Let's call it Cafe #8. As a newcomer, it's a disconcerting place. The owners hardly seem enchanted at the sight of an unfamiliar face. It's more like the moment in a Western when the hero walks into a saloon and every conversation stops as every head turns to look his way.

If, despite the owners' suspicion, you stick around, you'll start to notice how most of the customers seem to know each other. They'll stop for a chat at each table on their way in or out, or ask each other for help with the crossword. After a while, if you go in often enough, you will be rewarded with a smile and a nod. They may even not object if you ask to plug in your laptop.

A few years ago, to fill the gaps between freelance work, I used to be a mystery shopper for Starbucks. It was a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a company which aims to synthesize and standardize the "customer experience" of the kind of well-loved local cafe it sends out of business. Among other things, I had to rate the staff according to whether, over and above the standard sales script, they made an effort to strike up conversations with customers. Spontaneity, it seemed, was mandatory.

Well, what occurred to me, as I slowly won the acceptance of the owners of my local cafe, was that the one thing Starbucks can't simulate is the customer unfriendliness of a place that really belongs to its neighbourhood. At Starbucks, the staff are meant to treat me like a friend because I'm a paying customer. At Cafe #8, my treatment depends on becoming part of the community, which takes time. It's not that there's any danger of being turned away. Anyone can buy a coffee there - and they know how to make coffee - but, to get all sociological about it, the staff's "emotional labour" isn't part of the bargain. And, when you come to think about it, isn't there something dirtying about anywhere where I can pay to be treated like a friend?

So let's hear it for the places where it takes time before you're welcome, where the staff are slightly wary of outsiders. It doesn't score well with mystery shoppers. It's easy enough to caricature. But set against the fake friendliness demanded by the managers of multinationals, that wariness is a little act of resistance.

Friday 9 March 2007

Prehistoric Totalitarianism and Tiny Elephants

after the ice - coverI just got round to starting Steven Mithen's 'After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000-50,000 BC'. As befits a book which comes recommended by Alan Garner, it is both a damned good read and an education.

Without abandoning his professional rigour, Mithen provides the layman with a tour of a prehistoric world, many of whose 'most remarkable events remain hidden from all but a few academics and specialist readers in scholarly works of impenetrable and jargon-laden prose.' This is the story of the origins of farming, towns and civilisation against the backdrop of (at times dramatic) shifts in climate.

As Mithen acknowledges, the bumpy journey from the Last Glacial Maximum to the more hospitable world of the Holocene offers food for thought for us, facing the unknowns of man-made climate change. There are stories here which put a quietness on you. Consider the Natufians, who lived comfortably in villages across the Middle East for fifty generations, before the climatic switchback of the Younger Dryas brought in a thousand years of cold and drought, scattering them to a hungry, wandering existence.

Then there is a nightmarish reconstruction of the early town of Çatalhöyük, with its fearsome iconography of bulls and women whose breasts split apart to reveal the skulls of dead animals. Mithen suspects its residents, alienated from nature, became trapped inside their own myths: 'every aspect of their lives had become ritualised, any independence of thought and behaviour crushed out of them by an oppressive ideology manifest in the bulls, breasts, skulls and vultures.'

After this, it is a relief to reach the chapter on Cyprus, which reminded me - somewhat improbably - of a post from my favourite blogging librarian, relating a visit from her inlaws. The following dialogue was originally offered as proof of their deepening strangeness:

MiL: You know they made small animals out of bigger animals?

Me: *wondering if we're about to get a Talk on the Miracle of Birth* Not exactly...?

MiL: Well, you know, like domestic cats were bred from big wild cats, and dogs from wolves, and so on.

Me: Oh! Yes, what of it?

MiL: Well, don't you think they should make tiny elephants? You could stroke them *vigorously mimes stroking 2ft high elephant* They would look so cute scampering around the house, and they wouldn't shed on the carpet.

FiL: They're terrible for shedding skin, though, elephants are. *nods wisely*

Me: *boggles*

Now, regular readers of this blog will know that I have a soft spot for hippopotami - so I was doubly delighted to discover that not only tiny elephants but herds of tiny hippo actually existed in prehistoric Cyprus! This came about, not as my friend's in-laws proposed, through domestication, but as a result of the lack of predators on the island, 'great bulks being quite unnecessary if the only worry is to procure sufficient food and sex to ensure the survival of genes':

Both elephants and hippos gradually assumed the size of large pigs, the latter far more numerous and seeming to behave like pigs themselves. They were good swimmers but seemed happier scurrying through the undergrowth, feeding on leaves and shoots. The hippos had drunk from freshwater springs on the cliff-tops. In cold weather they had sheltered in coastal caves, being adept at climbing up and down steep slopes.

Controversy rages, apparently, over whether these marvellous sounding creatures were hunted to extinction by the first humans to reach Cyprus, at around 10,000 BC, or had already given up the ghost as a result of climate change. (Mithen comes down on the latter side of the argument.)

So much to write about, and I'm not yet a quarter of the way through this utterly fascinating book! (Meanwhile, here is a pair of small hippos I met in Trafalgar Square the other weekend...)

Monday 5 March 2007

Driving Climate Change...?

I was wandering around Holloway, trying to find the Islington Arts Factory, when the sign outside this car showroom made me do a double-take. If they had been open, I would have gone in to ask how they got the name - and whether anyone has pointed out the irony:

Holocene Motor Group

"I was at a conference where someone said something about the Holocene, the long period of relatively stable climate since the end of the last ice age. I suddenly thought that this was wrong. The world has changed too much. So I said: 'No, we are in the Anthropocene.' I just made up the word on the spur of the moment. Everyone was shocked. But it seems to have stuck." - Paul Crutzen, climate scientist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry

(Quote from Fred Pearce, 'The Last Generation: How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change')

Friday 2 March 2007

Climate Change and the Democratic Imagination

I've been rambling on here about climate change as a challenge to the imagination, rather than simply a technical problem in need of solutions. Now openDemocracy have published some of my more considered thoughts on the subject - in particular, on the visions of an authoritarian future I've noticed over the last year or so.

Here's a taster:

When Tony Blair told a reporter he was "still waiting for the first politician who's actually running for office who's going to come out and say" that we need to fly less, the headlines that followed were a measure of the way the debate over climate change has shifted. In 2005, similar remarks the British prime minister made to a parliamentary committee barely touched the news agenda. But in that time, the media here have moved on from debating the reality and the seriousness of climate change, to predicting how bad things will get and asking what needs to be done.

After years in which no BBC report on the subject was complete without airing the views of climate-change sceptics, this is progress. Where business leaders and politicians gather, there is talk of momentum, a tipping-point, history in the making. Yet behind this confidence, the fear remains that our democratic structures will not be up to the task: that the boundaries of what is politically "practical", in Blair's language, will not accommodate the kind of measures required to prevent runaway climate change.

It is this fear which feeds the visions of an authoritarian future which have begun to enter the debate from more than one side. The fact that few informed observers believe individual restraint and technological innovation will generate the necessary cuts in emissions, so that a significant increase in government intervention in individual behaviour is to be anticipated means such visions deserve to be taken seriously. They suggest that it is time to consider tackling climate change not simply as a technical problem but as a challenge to the democratic imagination.

Read the rest here.

Relatively Speaking...

The other week I read Nick Cohen's 'What's Left' back to back with Ian McEwan's 'Saturday'. Though I can admire the skill, I never warm to McEwan's novels, but this one seems to have become a cultural reference point beyond the usual literary quarters. The thoughts of Henry Perowne, whom it follows through the Saturday of the huge 2003 anti-war march, provide a starting point for George Monbiot's 'Heat'. Meanwhile, Cohen's polemic against the anti-war left is like having Perowne's opinions stripped of all ambivalence and shouted through a megaphone from six inches in front of your face.

It's not just that Cohen quotes and elaborates on the passage in which Perowne recoils at the levity of the march:

All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets - people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think - and they could be right - that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view. [p.69]

More than this, so many of Perowne's preoccupations are reproduced at length in Cohen's book. I want to look at one of these in more detail, but it may be worth saying that I'm not suggesting Cohen is somehow piggybacking on McEwan's work. Rather, both reflect the opinions of their generation of leftish, intellectualish writers and high-end journalists, which like most such generations has undergone a middle-age spread to the right - but which, unlike most, has done so with a tone of self-righteousness more familiar to adolescence, which finds (not unreasonable) justification in the excesses of their bêtes noires on the illiberal left.

But back to the thoughts of Henry Perowne. Like Cohen, he draws a connection between what disturbs him in the anti-war movement and the legacy of postmodernism:

Waiting at red lights, he watches three figures in black burkhas emerge from a taxi on Devonshire Place... He can't help his distaste, it's visceral. How dismal that anyone sould be obliged to walk around so entirely obliterated... And what would the relativists say, the cheerful pessimists from Daisy's college? That it's sacred, traditional, a stand against the fripperies of Western consumerism? [pp.123-4]

The thing about 'cultural relativism' is that people take such absolute positions on it. Criticism of it generally leads to the kind of black-and-white, us-and-them attitudes around which Perowne swings according to mood and on one side of which Cohen lands with the nuance of a tonne of bricks. In his terms, "You have to choose which side you are on, and those who don't usually end up as the biggest villains of all."

Once someone is thinking in such terms, any attempt to persuade them that the world is (in important ways) more complex than their description of it tends to be heard as an appeal to exactly the thing they are attacking. So I was pleased to read a post from Anthony McCann (he of the long breakfasts) yesterday which offers a critique of cultural relativism from someone who recognises its uses. What provoked Anthony's thoughts was a post from an academic colleague expressing a familiar attitude:

Our job is to document, study, and put in context cultural phenomena, not to judge it. We may as persons have opinions about appropriateness of certain phenomena, and as sensitive individuals we may forgo studying materials that we find personally offensive, but that is as far as it goes. Everything human is there for a reason and if we understand it, then we can come to terms with it.

For Anthony (and for me) this is not good enough:

I think as professional thinkers and academics, with the financial luxuries and political privileges that entails, there is an onus on the likes of us to work as hard as we can to craft more respectful attitudes, more politically appropriate positions, more personally accountable understandings, to make our crafting visible, and to invite others to engage in similar work.

Nevertheless, he acknowledges, the practise of cultural relativism can play a (limited) part in this process:

Cultural relativism works, for me, merely as a position of critique, whereby people who assume privileged, unassailable positions of 'Truth' are reminded that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies.

To Perowne or Cohen, that may sound like such common sense as to be trivial - but my impression is that it's when we think of this as trivial that we are most likely also to treat our own "privileged, unassailable positions of 'Truth'" as common sense.

Thursday 1 March 2007

A Lost Whale and a Polar Bear Swimming in the Footlights

It was like a sequence from the opening minutes of a disaster movie, that day last winter when a whale swam up the Thames and past the palace of Westminster. Two Leviathans, ominously juxtaposed: Hobbes' force of the state and this ancient, biblical force of nature, disorientated now and dying painfully. As in a film, the story played out through TV reporters and crowds gathering along the riverside, excited and amazed, yet oblivious to the significance of what they are witnessing. If only they knew, they would run for the hills...

Well, maybe not. But sitting in a concrete bunker on the opposite bank of the Thames the other night, listening as Iain Sinclair recalled that extraordinary event, it seemed to me that here was another example of the signs of the times I wrote about last month.

Climate change may be implicated in the death of the Thames whale. Colin MacLeod of Aberdeen University, who carried out the autopsy, believes changes in water temperature may have altered the distribution of her normal food, the marvellously named "gonatus armhook squid", driving it southwards into the North Sea. "If the whale then followed its natural migratory instincts to go south and west it will find all its pathways blocked by coastline."

Whether or not this is what happened, the whale in the Thames was a powerful symbol of a world out of joint. I guess this kind of eschatological tea-leaf reading could seem a poor use of time, given all the practical stuff to be done to raise awareness and limit the impact of climate change. Yet I believe that without such ways of thinking we will fail in more dangerous ways than we are likely to fail anyway.

As individuals, if we respond to our present circumstances with the ways of thinking currently respectable, we are likely to end in despair. Just yesterday, Paul Kingsnorth - one of Britain's most dedicated environmental journalists - demonstrated this tendency:

Imagine you are a visiting alien from another planet. Appraise the situation for yourself, and give me an unbiased and honest account of how likely you think it is that this species, at this time, in this situation, can do what is necessary to prevent potential climate disaster. What is the answer you get? Not good, is it?

Collectively, worse fates than despair beckon. There is a real danger that the application of existing ways of thinking to the circumstances of climate change will lead to the intensification of structures of domination, violence and oppression so as to preserve our ways of life - and that good people will actively support this in ways they would not ordinarily conscion.

In this context, the few voices which seem both hopeful and not obviously deluded belong to people able to operate outside the ways of thinking generally regarded as "grown up" in modern western societies. For example, one of my heroes, the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping! Now, I've met people who think the Reverend Billy is simply satirising religion. It's certainly true that he spoofs the hypocrisies of Christianity, yet he does so from a deep understanding of what religion can be at its best. (Very much in the line of Ivan Illich, in fact - that other turbulent priest and hero of mine.)

Anyway, I was struck by the difference between the despair towards which Paul Kingsnorth's article points, and a recent epistle from the Reverend Billy. He seems to be saying something I've been edging towards myself, that the force of nature which is starting to hit us is also an experience of the sublime, and may offer our last best chance of escaping the ways of thinking which have contributed to the mess we're in:

All activists are aware that we must take our strategies now from a more powerful partner in activism. Call it the Fabulous Unknown. We know that we are no match for the activist powers of this cataclysmic force.

We are all activists, or we think we are. We have searched for a theory of change. The apocalyptic Christians have their pillar of fire, war as a permanent weather system on their horizon. The liberals believe that change comes from some form of advertising, the industrial persuasion that they call democracy. People who claim to be changing the world are constantly offering alternatives for our lives which encourage a strict gradualism.

Western leaders, from Bush to Bono - they all have an idea for change, but they fear sudden change like a Puritan fears the sexual act. Arnold Schwarzenegger committed one of his four Hummers to a stern diet of veggie fuel. Glamorous gradualism. But our more powerful partner is both Fabulous and Unknowable, and has no fear of suddenness.

Last night, a friend of mine from "The Theater," shouted to an entire restaurant, "My art form hasn't changed the world since 'Angels in America' in 1995! I'll start the North Pole Theater. Yes, we'll go up there and... we'll raise our curtain on our play, and perform until our stage melts, and then we'll go down into the black freezing sea, and it will be a triumph!" I liked hearing this. She senses that now we must be extreme to be kind.

(Read the rest here.)

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